Josh Bannan scored 23 points and Montana shot 51% from the floor, beating Montana State 80-74 in Missoula on Sunday.
“I thought Bannan was great, especially early on, and actually he was great all game,” said the Montana State coach Danny Sprinkle. “Especially when we cut it down to four (towards the end of the second half). He took a great shot.”
Montana State struggled on both ends of the floor for most of the afternoon, cutting a 17-point deficit to four with 2:34 in the second half to play on layups Nick Gazelasand over after a UM basket Xavier Bishop. The Bobcats forced a turnover and had a chance to reduce it to a one-ball game, but a turnover by MSU followed by Bannan’s jumper with 48 seconds to play effectively ended the game.
“I’m disappointed with our performance but I have to give it to them,” Sprinkle said of Montana’s attacking stance. “They made us play like that with their aggressiveness.”
The first half was similar to the second half. Montana put up a big lead and the Cats fought back.
MSU halved UM’s 12-point lead in the first half 90 seconds before halftime, but sloppy play by the Bobcats allowed the Grizzlies to restore the lead to 11. MSU committed a personal foul with eight seconds left and Lonell Martin Jr.’s free throws pushed the Griz lead to eight. Before MSU pushed the ball into the apron Abdel Mohamed Offensive foul allowed the Griz to hit a three-pointer on the buzzer.
“The end of the first half is inexcusable for us from a disciplinary point of view,” Sprinkle said. “We talked about getting back into transition on defense. I think there was nine seconds left and we had two guys on the ball and we fouled them. We give up two free throws then we get an illegal screen They hit the big three halfway through, and instead of a six-point lead, it’s up to 11.
Coupled with an 8-2 run from halftime, UM gained control at this point, allowing them to hold onto most of the rest of the game. But Bobcat trainers Danny Sprinkle said he saw a difference much earlier.
“Their energy was much better than ours. You came out today with a purpose and we didn’t. They got us off the jump on our heels, and their boys got up and made games. Give them credit – Bannan, Beasley, Whitney – they did plays.”
Montana dominated the game at three-point arc. The Grizzlies shot 11-28 from the deep and held the Cats to a triple on eight attempts. “They were 11 for 28 (from three-point range) and the 17 they missed was wide open,” Sprinkle said. “We didn’t put up much resistance to them today. They have guys who play basketball, so they don’t always take a lot of three-pointers, but they have guys who can do three-pointers.”
Montana State held the game tight at the free throw line. The Bobcats knocked down 25 of their 29 free throw attempts and got to the line as often as possible Xavier Bishops penetration Jubrile Belos power within. Bishop had a season-high 27 points, one of the best of his career, and dished out four assists. He was 10-11 at the line.
Belo scored 21 points on 6-7 shooting, 9-11 from the free throw line. His 16 rebounds marked a career high and he blocked a shot. While the Cats shot 51% from the floor, two fewer baskets but eight more free throws than UM, the Grizzlies outscored the MSU by 30 points from the arc. Bishop made the only Bobcat triple while six different grizzles connected from deep.
Bishop said Montana State’s comeback in the second half was encouraging but didn’t change his team’s mistake. “We are always confident, no matter how far behind we are. We got it down to six and there were a few loose balls that didn’t bounce in our direction, but that’s basketball,” Bishop said. “We definitely started to get aggressive but it was too late. We dug a deep hole in the first half and when you try to play hard and come back you tend to run out of gas. We got each other definitely dug into a hole and it was hard to get out.”
Montana State falls to 13-4 in the Big Sky game, 21-7 overall, and faces its biggest regular season game in 20 years when Southern Utah comes to town for a tip Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Thunderbirds are 12-5, a game behind the pacing Bobcats. An MSU win secures a share of Big Sky’s regular-season crown, while a Thunderbird leaves the teams tied with two regular-season games remaining.
Sprinkle said he’s excited for the opportunity to compete for a title and Sunday’s game will spur his team on. “I tell these guys all the time, the basketball gods reward you for what you’ve done,” he said. Montana deserved it today. As hard as it is to say, they deserve it. We have to change our mindset by Tuesday.”