RENO, Nev. – The final game in the first round of the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament left the record book in tatters, fans on the edge of their seat all night, and two phenomenal players somehow trading baskets while on fumes. But it’s not a game the Bobcats will want to remember.
6th-seeded Montana State fell in triple overtime to No. 11 Southern Utah, 109-105 on Tuesday night.
“It’s not about playing well,” said MSU head coach Brian Fish. “It’s not about getting better. It’s about winning by one point. They won, and we didn’t. And that’s all that this comes down to, is finding a way to just win.”
The last place Thunderbirds won for only the sixth time this season, and now advance to play Weber State in the quarterfinals on Thursday night. The Bobcats season ends with a 16-16 record.
The two leading scorers in the Big Sky, and two of the top ten in the country, put on a show in the Reno Events Center. Tyler Hall scored 33 points for Montana State, making 7 three-pointers and pulling down 12 rebounds. But Randy Onwuasor was even more impressive, with 43 points (a Big Sky tournament record), and connecting on 20 of 25 from the free throw line.
The game broke Big Sky Tournament records for total points, points by one team, and three pointers made just to name a few. And the drama kept extending further and further into the night.
Southern Utah built their biggest lead to that point, a five-point advantage with 4:07 left. But the Cats came back to tie it twice, the second time on a Hall three-pointer. Then Devonte Klines scored a layup with 33 seconds remaining, giving MSU a 78-76 lead.
MSU forced a miss on the next possession, and Sam Neumann grabbed the rebound, but Onwuasor forced a jump ball. The arrow gave the ball back to the T-Birds. And seconds later, Klines fouled James McGee on a three-point attempt. McGee missed the first free throw, but made the next two. Hall’s last second three was off the mark, forcing the first overtime.
In a thrilling back-and-forth first overtime period neither team built more than a two point lead. Klines made two free throws with 9 seconds left to put the Cats up 93-91. But on the other end, Klines fouled Onwuasor on a drive with 2 seconds on the clock. The junior hit both free throws, and a last-second half-court heave by Harald Frey missed the mark, setting up overtime number two.
The Cats remained hot, building a six point advantage thanks to Hall three-pointers. But MSU did not score for the final 3:14 of the second overtime. Southern Utah came back to tie the game 101-101 on an Onwuasor bucket with 53 seconds left. Hall missed a three, giving SUU the final possesion. Onwuasor couldn’t score on a drive, but the rebound bounced to a wide open John Marshall with 3 seconds left. He missed a 15-foot jumper, and the game continued for five more minutes.
Montana State’s signs of fatigue continued into the third overtime. MSU only scored one-point on a Hall free throw, falling behind 108-102 in the final seconds. Cooper Olson did hit a desperation three-pointer in the final moments, but a Marshall free throw sealed the Thunderbirds upset victory.
“That’s what we condition for all Spring and Summer,” said Hall. “But it is tough just realizing that your shot is not the same, things aren’t the same. But we’ve got to push through and make enough plays to win.”
Foul trouble also hurt the Cats. Fish only showed faith in 8 on the roster, but four Cats players fouled out.
The night appeared to be in the Cats favor earlier. Montana State led 42-29 at halftime, thanks to 15 in the first half from Klines. And the margin was extended to 15 early in the second half. Then Southern Utah started the comeback.
“They just started attacking us on both ends,” said Hall. They started out-hustling us. Started out-rebounding us. And we were taking quick shots in the 1-3-1 zone they were in. They just kind of had us stagnant for a while.”
Fish agreed that the quick shots hurt the Cats. But he added, “The part that I thought hurt us more than anything, we had two or three possessions there to win the game in regulation, overtime, the second overtime. Just finishing out, we’ve got to do a better job there.”
The Cats also fell in the first round last year in Reno. And although this was the best year for the program since 2009-2010, no one felt that way leaving the arena.
“We’re still young,” said Hall. “We’re looking forward to being back. But there’s no possible way we can think about that right now.”
Other Big Sky Men’s first round games
The Portland State men started the bracket with an 80-67 win over Northern Arizona. The 8-seed Vikings trailed with 7:29 left. But their full court pressure caused problems, and the 9-seed Lumberjacks fell apart down the stretch. Portland State will battle top-seed North Dakota in the quarterfinals Thursday.
It took a while, but 7-seed Sacramento State showed why they are a threat in Reno. The Hornets beat 10-seed Idaho State 91-76. The Bengals kept it close, taking a 51-47 lead with 16:26 left. But Sac State then went on a 9-0 run, and kept building a bigger lead until the end. The Hornets will take on number two Eastern Washington on Thursday.