Big Sky Conference

Stout defense helps ‘Cats hang on for win over SUU


BOZEMAN — Tyler Hall buried his second 3-pointer in as many possessions as the long-limbed Southern Utah forward Dwayne Morgan put a hand in his face.

The triple pushed the Montana State lead to 12 points seven minutes into the second half as MSU tried desperately to halt a four-game losing streak to the talented yet sporadic Thunderbirds. The advantage was the largest of Saturday afternoon’s matinee in front of 2,851 for the Bobcats.

Hall would not make another shot the rest of the contest. MSU would endure a cold streak of more than six minutes until Keljin Blevins’ layup with 6:03 left kept the Thunderbirds down by two possessions, 58-54. It would mark the last field goal Montana State would make.

MSU did not make a shot the last six minutes of the game and made just one field goal in 17 attempts over the final 12:41. Yet Hall and senior Konner Frey sat at the post-game press conference with smiles on their faces and professions of the altered mindset of a Bobcat squad that has been on a roller coaster during the first half of the 18-game Big Sky Conference schedule.

Montana State forward Konner Frey (22)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State secured stops on nine out of 11 possessions during one crucial stretch the second 10 minutes of the second half, then made 10 of 12 free throws over the final six minutes of the game to secure a crucial 69-66 victory at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon.

“I wouldn’t say the win itself changes our mindset — the change came before today — and the result of that change was the win,” said Frey, who finished with 11 points and five rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench. “We needed to stop playing the poor me, poor us game and rely on each other as a team. The win was awesome for us, we needed it badly but the change came beforehand going into this win and helped with this outcome.”

RELATED: Montana State 69, Southern Utah 66 (click for box score)

The win snaps MSU’s four-game losing streak, a skid that included a pair of 19-point road losses at Portland State and Sacramento State, a lackluster second half performance in a 15-point home loss to rival Montana and an embarrassing 77-75 loss to Northern Arizona on Thursday. NAU came to Bozeman with an 0-7 Big Sky record and a 3-17 record overall. MSU’s Saturday victory kept its Big Sky and overall records above .500 with nine league games left.

Montana State guard Devonte Klines (10) splits a pair of Southern Utah defenders/by Brooks Nuanez

“When you go through things as a season, sometimes you lose games when the team is just better than you, sometimes you lose a game just because in a 31-game season, you aren’t ready to go,” MSU head coach Brian Fish said. “You are going to go through some things in a 31-game season and I don’t care who you are. It’s been since 1976 since the last team went undefeated.

“We were going through some things that were down the wrong path. We were trying to win games offensively. These are good kids but they were trying to do too much to win basketball games. We had three or four possessions each half where we were stagnant but then we snapped out of it. I’m really proud of these guys.”

The four-game losing streak came on the heels of MSU’s first 4-0 start in league play in 13 years. Montana State reaches the midpoint of the conference season with a 5-4 mark and an 12-10 record overall.

“It’s definitely frustrating and we have been running away from adversity,” Hall said after scoring 23 points, his 44th 20-point in 84 games as a Bobcat. “Today, we remained focused when things went back, stayed together, stayed positive and found a way to get a win.”

Southern Utah missed 15 of its first 19 shots of the second half after building a 40-37 halftime lead in a game that went from an fast-paced affair to a slugfest. The Bobcats came out of the locker room and got three quick buckets — two from point guard Harald Frey, who finished with six points, and one from junior guard Devonte Klines, who scored 12 — to take their first lead since five minutes in.

Montana State guard Keljin Blevins (2) fights for a rebound with Southern Utah forward Ivan Madunic (22)/by Brooks Nuanez

“We have struggled coming out of halftime the last couple of games so that was a focus for us,” Konner Frey said. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t come out flat, which we’ve made the mistake of doing before. We wanted to really come out with energy. Whether shots were going to fall, you can’t always control that but the thing you can control is making sure you don’t come out flat.”

SUU stole the lead back on a Morgan layup — the talented UNLV transfer finished with 11 points and nine rebounds before fouling out — before MSU seized control. Hall scored 10 points during a 13-0 run that included two of his three made 3-pointers to give MSU the 12-point advantage.

After Hall’s last three, MSU went ice cold, reminiscent of the offensive futility that has trademarked the losing streak. But instead of trying to close out the game with offense, the Bobcats instead buckled down defensively to close out the Thunderbirds despite Jamal Aytes’ best effort.

Southern Utah’s burly, bruising BYU transfer used his 245-pound frame to muscle his way to bucket after bucket. He scored 12 points and grabbed six rebounds to stake SUU to its halftime lead, then scored 10 of SUU’s final 14 points. He finished the game 11-of-15 for 22 points.

“You’ve got to tip your hats to them. They executed and made plays at the end,” Aytes said. “We didn’t do the same. We missed a lot of easy jump shots and they made the best of those opportunities.”

Southern Utah forward Jamal Aytes (15) posts up Montana State forward Konner Frey (22)/by Brooks Nuanez

Despite Aytes’ efforts, SUU could not find a way to rally. The Thunderbirds finished 0-of-10 from beyond the 3-point arc after halftime and 7-of-25 from deep overall. SUU made eight of its final 13 shots, including five buckets from Aytes and two more by Jadon Cohee, who finished with 13 points. But the string of stops after the 13-0 run along with a gritty rebounding effort to earn a 37-37 draw on the glass against the more athletic Thunderbirds helped Montana State emerge with the victory.

“We were running away from it when shots aren’t going down and we were trying to win games with shots and come back on offense,” Hall said. “That can’t be the case for us. We locked in on defense and that’s what we need to do.”

Southern Utah scored almost as many points in the first half (40) as the T-Birds managed in a 71-47 loss at Montana on Thursday. SUU has an array of scorers, most of which MSU was able to negate. Southern Utah scored 99 points in a five-point loss to Montana State in December. Cohee scored 20, James McGee scored 19 (he finished with four on Saturday) and Morgan scored 15. In the rematch, MSU buckled down to push SUU to 2-7 in league play, 8-11 overall.

“Athleticism is off the charts, their inside guys are really good, their guards are quick and can shoot it,” Fish said. “They are just a really team. I would be willing to bet if they replayed their first nine games, they would not be 2-7. Aytes down low, man was he an animal. They are really good.”

Montana State guard Tyler Hall (3) defended by Southern Utah forward Dwayne Morgan (25)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State will now prepare for its last long road trip of the regular season. MSU plays at North Dakota in Grand Forks on Thursday before playing Northern Colorado in Greeley on Saturday. MSU’s other three Big Sky road games includes the bus trip to Idaho and Eastern Washington and a rivalry rematch with the Griz in Missoula.

“I thought at times, we’ve played some really good basketball and at times, we have played basketball not very good,” Fish said. “I think we’ve had a ton of stuff thrown at us. We’ve fought through some things. We have a long way to go. There’s nine games left. It’s a grind. But I like the way played today. Today we didn’t let things we couldn’t control bother us and we handled the things we could control.”

In the paramount season in Fish’s four-year tenure, Hall has battled an array of defensive schemes, an ankle injury that slowed him for almost 10 games in the non-conference and a bad bout with the flu that afflicted him against the Grizzlies into this week. On Saturday, he shook out of his mini-slump as he continues chasing his anointment as the preseason Big Sky MVP.

“It was nice to get off the hump, the losing streak,” Hall said. “I think we are all right, stay together, keep playing the right way, we will be fine. I have a lot of confidence in this team.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. 

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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