BOZEMAN — Montana State did not score a point the final five minutes, 16 seconds on Saturday afternoon. The Bobcats didn’t need to.
Behind a career-high 25 points by junior center Madeline Smith and a balanced, dominant effort on the glass, MSU’s women’s basketball team stayed alone in fifth place in the Big Sky Conference standings with a 72-59 win over Weber State at Brick Breedin Fieldhouse.
“I can’t score unless the guards get me the ball,” Smith said. “It was all them.
“In the second half we had a lot of good steals and that helped a lot. We knew that was something we could capitalize on: running in transition, pushing the ball. Once I got it a couple of times and four people are running on their defenders, we ate it up a little bit.”
Playing for the fourth game in a row without leading scorer Claire Lundberg, Montana State used crisp ball movement and the efficiency on the block of Smith, a 6-foot-1 junior who scores at a per-minute rate as high as anyone in the Big Sky.
Smith’s ability to finish in transition and her ability to go one-on-one out of the post in MSU’s half-court offense led to her career-best outing. She converted 9-of-12 from the floor and 7-of-8 from the stripe. Her previous career high was 23 points last season against Montana State-Billings. Her previous season high this campaign was a 16-point outing against Northern Colorado.
“I thought she really worked for position and was attack-minded from the start,” Binford said. “We show them clips and show them moments of them being really aggressive and we have clips where it goes the other way. Today, start to finish, she had the right mind set.”
The win moves Montana State to 8-7 in Big Sky Conference play, 13-12 overall. The top five finishers in the regular-season earn first round byes at the Big Sky Tournament in Boise next month.
“We needed that win a lot,” Smith said. “Hopefully that will get us rolling for the next five games.”
Lundberg, a 6-foot-1 Seton Hall transfer, suffered a torn ACL against Northern Colorado. Her career as a Bobcat is finished. Even with Lundberg – who averaged 17 points per game before her injury — Montana State has been at its best offensively when moving the ball consistently in Binford’s dribble-drive offense. Saturday, that notion proved true again.
Junior Oliana Squires was just 4-of-14 from the floor and 1-of-7 from beyond the arc but her smooth facilitation helped Smith get the ball in one-on-one situations. Squires dished out six of MSU’s 15 assists to go with 11 points.
Junior Martha Kuderer scored 12 points for MSU, who shot 44.1 percent from the floor despite making just four of its 20 tries from distance. Kuderer hit all five of her free throws as MSU hit 16-of-19 from the stripe.
“Our junior class really stepped up today,” Binford said. “We’ve been saying all along that you have to go with your upperclassmen. I thought Madeline started us off by setting the tone inside. I thought Oli got a little bit healthier on her foot today. And you have Martha, Blaire (Braxton) coming in and giving us great minutes. I thought our junior class was really solid.”
But the Bobcats’ ability to dominate the glass helped keep the Wildcats to one shot in the second half that proved to be the different. Smith and Squires each grabbed seven rebounds, freshman Halle Wright added six boards and the Bobcats compiled a 42-31 advantage on the glass.
“That was huge,” Binford said. “It was even at halftime and (Kayla) Watkins got half of her point production on o-boards. We talked about that at halftime. At their place, they did a great job on the glass. It was a major point of emphasis. We did not rebound out of the zone against Idaho State (on Thursday) very well. We talked again about where the box outs needed to come from and we did a good job on that.”
The last-place Wildcats — WSU came to Bozeman with a 2-12 record in Big Sky Conference play — gave the hosts all they could handle in the first half. Dominique Williams hit a 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to cut MSU’s lead to 43-40 going into the break.
The WSU trio of Jaomoni Welch-Coleman, Emily Drake and Kayla Watkins scored 33 points in the first half. Watkins was particularly potent operating out of the high post, scoring 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
The trio combined for 15 points on 5-of-20 shooting in the second half. WSU made just seven of its 32 second-half shot attempts, including just four of its 20 shots from beyond the arc after Binford switched into a 2-3 zone.
“We were talking really well and we were able to get some stops, which fed into our offense,” Kuderer said. “We played really hard, rebounded pretty well and communicated really well, which is something we have struggled within the past but we did a good job of it.”
Welch-Coleman finished with 17 points and seven assists. Drake added 16 points but was 6-of-18 from the floor, including 2-of-9 in the second half. Watkins scored just two points after halftime.
“We went to the zone because Watkins was getting such good low post touches consistently and they were getting a lot on the offensive glass,” Binford said. “We wanted to take her out of the equation and force some outside shots. They hit a couple but for the most part, I thought we did a great job of being active and getting out and running. I was really pleased with it.”
Montana State’s attention now turns to a rivalry game in Missoula against the Lady Griz of Montana. The Bobcats are gunning for a seventh win in the last nine of a rivalry almost exclusively dominated by UM until the last couple of seasons.
“It will be a post battle and guards will have to step up, too,” Binford said.
Reporting and photographs by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.