RENO — Quinton Everett sat on the bench, a towel in his mouth and tears streaming down his cheeks as he watched teammate after teammate come take a seat next to him.
Randy Onwuasor cut through Bobcat defender after Bobcat defender, sending Montana State’s defensive stoppers to the bench one by one. When the final buzzer finally sounded in a battle for the ages, the bullish Southern Utah guard played a hand in fouling out Everett, Devonte Klines, Zach Green and Harald Frey as the final first-round game of the Big Sky Tournament turned from war into battle of attrition.
Onwuasor, a Texas Tech transfer who earned the Big Sky’s Newcomer of the Year award by tying Montana State’s Tyler Hall for the league scoring lead, put forth a record-setting performance built on endurance. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior barreled his way into the lane over and over again, scoring a Big Sky Tournament single-game record 43 points in 53 grueling minutes to lead his 11th-seeded Thunderbirds to a 109-105 win in triple overtime over No. 6 Montana State.
“My mindset never changes; whoever is in front of me is going to get the same outcome,” Onwuasor after hitting 11 field goals and sinking 20 free throws. “I just keep attacking, try to keep playing hard and try to get the win for my team.”
Onwuasor scored 30 of his 43 points in the last eight minutes of regulation and the three overtimes. He hit two of his 20 free throw makes in 25 attempts with two seconds left in the first overtime to extend the game tied at 93. He hit a jump shot in the lane with 53 seconds let in the second overtime to send the game to a tournament-record third OT tied at 101. He hit his last four free throws in the last 22 seconds of the third extra period to push SUU’s lead to 108-102 as the two teams broke the 30-year-old tournament record of 207 combined points set in Weber State’s 106-101 win over MSU.
“We were taking advantage of the matchups we wanted,” SUU first-year head coach Todd Simon. “To have the endurance to do what Randy did…we also asked him to guard Tyler Hall, he did a fantastic job contesting shots, chasing him around. On the other end, to keep continuing to drive and get down hill, that’s hard to do.”
The win is definitively the biggest in Southern Utah’s short history in the Big Sky. Since joining the league in 2012, SUU had won just 17 of its 90 games against conference opponents, including just six over the last two seasons. The Thunderbirds lost 15 of 16 after a 2-0 start to limp into the tournament as the bottom-seeded team with just five wins in 31 games overall.
Behind Onwuasor’s memorable night coupled with the inspired play of senior Will Joyce (16 points, 15 rebounds, six offensive rebounds) and the clutch shooting of junior James McGee (16 points, four 3-pointers) and freshman Jacob Calloway (11 points, three 3s), the T-Birds earned their first-ever league tournament win
“We came into this game knowing we was supposed to win,” Onwuasor said. “We weren’t hoping we were going to win. We came in knowing we was supposed to win, expecting to win. We had that confidence all season long, we just couldn’t put it together. As the season went on, we started to get closer and closer and it’s finally here when it matters.”
Hall, Montana State’s unanimous first-team All-Big Sky sophomore guard, answered Onwuasor during the stretch run of regulation and the first two overtimes before visibly running out of gas. Hall’s 3-pointer with 1:16 left in regulation tied the game at 76. His layup with 32 seconds left in the first OT gave MSU a 91-89 lead and his two 3-pointers early in the second OT pushed MSU’s lead to 101-95, its largest in extra time.
Hall got a clean look from 24 feet with 23 seconds left in the second overtime that was just short. He missed all five of his shots and one of his two free throw attempts in overtime as Southern Utah pulled the biggest upset of the tournament’s short history playing on a neutral court at the Reno Events Center here.
“This one hurts,” said Hall after finishing his second season with 739 points and 120 made 3-pointers, both smashing MSU single-season records. “All the work we’ve been putting in since the summer, we didn’t want to come out like this. I know I enjoyed it and we enjoyed it so you don’t want to take that away from the season.”
Hall, who averaged an identical 22.8 points per game as Onwuasor, finished with 33 points, the 10th 30-point game of his career, including the seventh this season. Hall hit seven of MSU’s tournament-record 18 3-pointers. He shot 18 3s, grabbed 12 rebounds and dished out five of MSU’s 20 assists but it wasn’t enough as Montana State lost in the first round of the league tournament for the second straight year and the fifth straight time overall.
“It’s tough realizing your shot is not the same, things aren’t the same because you’re so tired,” said Hall after playing 51 minutes. “(My legs) started to go there, probably the second one, honestly. You have to play through that. They are in the same situation as we were.”
Thanks to a 15-point first half from Klines, MSU’s sophomore defensive stopper, the Bobcats built a 42-29 halftime lead. Hall’s first field goal of the second half pushed the lead to 15 points before the Big Sky’s last-place finisher began to chip away.
With Klines and Everett splitting the on-ball duty on the Big Sky’s most powerful dribble driver, Onwuasor made just three of his first 14 field goal attempts. He did not hit a bucket in the second half until 12 minutes in.
Once he hit his first shot of the second half to cut MSU’s lead to 59-58, Onwuasor reassumed the player that averaged 22.8 points and shot more free throws than any player in the Big Sky by a large margin. His 3-point play with 4:46 left in regulation boosted SUU to a 66-64 lead. His 3-point play with 1:37 left in regulation pushed Southern Utah’s lead to 76-73.
Hall answered by hitting one of his seven 3-point makes to tie the game with 48 seconds left. Klines drove from the right side through the paint and finished on the left side of the rim with his left hand to give MSU a 78-76 advantage with 33 seconds left in regulation.
McGee drew a Klines foul on a 3-point try but missed the first free throw. He hit the second two with 9.2 seconds left. Hall got a clean look at a game-winner but the try was just long, sending MSU to overtime for the fifth time this season.
Frey, the Big Sky’s Freshman of the Year, hit his fifth 3-pointer on a 19-point night to give MSU a one-point lead with 3:45 left in the first overtime. But by the end of the first extra frame, the attrition began for the Bobcats.
Everett, MSU’s lone senior picked up his fifth foul with 23 seconds left, allowing Onwuasor to tie the game at 91 from the stripe. Klines, who finished with a career-high 25 points, answered with two free throws to give MSU a 93-91 lead with nine seconds left in the first OT. On the next possession, Klines picked up his fifth foul with two seconds left and Onwuasor hit two more free throws to force a second overtime.
“I felt like I let my team down, I felt like I like Q down,” Klines said. “I wanted to win for the team. I fouled at the wrong time. We couldn’t get stops. I feel like I should’ve had more energy and helped my team more to get a win.”
With Klines and Everett out, MSU third-year head coach Brian Fish went with junior reserve Joe Mvuezolo on Onwuasor before the 6-foot-6 lanky junior college transfer picked up two quick fouls. Hall started the second OT with his sixth three, then Frey converted two free throws for his final points to give MSU a 98-94 lead with 3:43 left.
“A game like this goes from a basketball game to survival of the fittest,” Fish said. “Credit them for finding a way to get a win. I thought our guys played incredibly hard.
“We are not a fully developed roster. I rolled the dice and took two transfers (Konner Frey, Keljin Blevins) so we started the year down to 11. Then (Mandrell Worthy) got hurt. When they draw that many fouls, all of a sudden, we start losing bodies. We were in a situation we are just not ready to handle yet.”
Moments later, Hall drilled his last 3-pointer to give the Bobcats a four-point lead with two minutes left. Mvuezolo missed an open triple try, McGee converted in the lane, MSU’s Zach Green was blocked in the lane and Joyce secured the rebound. Onwuasor hit a floater in the lane to tie the game at 101 with 23 seconds left in the second-to-last period.
Hall missed a try with 18 seconds left, setting up a game-winning chance for SUU. Onwuasor missed a contested look, senior John Marshall grabbed the offensive rebound but missed a clean shot from 15 feet. Within the first three minutes of the third overtime, Frey and Green both fouled out, forcing Fish to play seldom-used 6-11 freshman Devin Kirby for the final 2:25 of action.
Joyce’s 14th and final rebound resulted in a put-back on an Onwuasor miss and put SUU up 104-101.On MSU’s next chance, Hall missed his first of two free throws and the T-Birds stayed ahead, 104-102 with 40 seconds left. Onwuasor hit four free throws in the final 22 seconds to seal a win to remember.
The defeat stops what was one of the league’s hottest teams dead in their tracks. The Bobcats sputtered to 10 losses in 11 games in December, including a 1-4 start in league play. But Fish led Montana State to a pair of five-game winning streaks, the second which included a signature win over Montana to snap a 13-game losing streak to the rival Griz. MSU won 10 of 13 entering the tournament and would’ve been the No. 3 seed with a first-round bye had it won at Weber State on Saturday.
Instead, Montana State is stuck with the bitter taste of defeat and a Tuesday exit from the league tournament for the second straight season.
“The tournament is not about playing well or getting better, it’s about winning by one point,” Fish said. “They won, we didn’t. That’s all this comes down to: finding a way to just win.
“The finality of this to walk into the locker room and see guys hurt who left everything on the line. They gave everything they had. It’s going to hurt but I hope it’s motivation. It’s not easy, you have to feel the pain and it’s got to motivate you.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.