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Montana State squeaks past rival Montana in Big Sky hoops battle

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Posted at 10:49 PM, Jan 21, 2023

MISSOULA — Behind the efforts of Darius Brown II and RaeQuan Battle's double-figure performances that combined for more than half of Montana State's points, the Bobcats squeaked past rival Montana with a three-point victory, 67-64.

It was MSU's first win in Missoula since 2010.

Brown led Montana State (13-8, 6-2 Big Sky) with 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting, while Battle followed with 18 points on 7-of-12 from the field.

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"A lot of resilience," Brown stated. "It was tough, especially in this environment. That's what our non-conference schedule is for. We played in a lot of tough environments like GCU, Arizona. A lot of tough environments to prepare us for a game like this. We just stuck together as a team and just made sure we rode it out together and I'm really proud of this team."

The Bobcats led 35-29 at halftime thanks to some hot shooting, but down the stretch is where things got interesting.

After Josh Bannan went 1 for 2 at the line to tie it, Brandon Whitney gave UM its first lead of the game at 59-57 after a pair of free throws with just over two minutes to play. 

But the biggest bucket for Montana came with 1:34 to go as Dischon Thomas buried a 3-pointer that sent Dahlberg Arena into a frenzy and gave the Grizzlies a 62-59 lead. 

"For me, I was told a lot about it when I got here and as the game was coming up I heard more about it," Thomas said. "It was a great experience just to see how many people showed up and how much people care about the rivalry so it was a great experience."

But immediately the Bobcats responded as Brown completed a three-point play on an and-1 drive, to tie it 62-62. 

Whitney again gave UM a lead with a jumper with 52 seconds to go, but on the other end Battle drew a foul beyond the 3-point line by Lonnell Martin Jr., and the Washington transfer buried all three, similar to how he did at the Big Sky tournament in Boise, Idaho last March, when MSU needed big shots from the charity stripe.  

Two more free throws from Brown with 9.7 seconds left gave MSU the three-point lead, and Aanen Moody's buzzer-beater attempt was off the mark as the Bobcat bench jumped into celebration. 

"RaeQuan's got a flair for the dramatic," MSU head coach Danny Sprinkle said. "He just kind of has that it factor. It doesn't matter if it's a half-court shot, I knew he was going to make all three and that's not easy to do. A lot of guys step up and make the first two and then getting that third one that's hard. That's who he is and I'm glad he's with us."

"It's funny because when he made the three in the game, I don't know why, I just had a flashback like literally sitting on his couch in Pasadena, seven or eight months ago with him his mom and his brother and to be in this environment and to make some of those big-time plays, it was just surreal," Sprinkle addedmo about Brown. "I kept putting myself in his recliner telling his mom I'm going to take care of him and that joker's taking care of me."

Montana State finished 17 for 19 from the charity stripe while shooting 51% from the field (24-47). The Grizzlies (9-11, 3-5) went 22 of 59 shooting (45%).

Moody finished with 21 points, 19 of which came in the second half. He scored 11 straight points for Montana to cut the lead to just one point of MSU, 49-48, with 7:52 remaining. Whitney had 17 and Thomas finished with 14.

"The deciding factor is the same thing that it's been the last couple of losses we taken like this, just beating ourselves," Moody said afterwards. "We just find a way to just not do what we're supposed to do and just we end up beating ourself and playing out of character outside of the other 18 minutes of that half and I think that's what it was."

"To win close games you need to be as solid as possible and not commit errors that beat yourself," UM coach Travis DeCuire added. "You want to force your opponent to beat you and I think just some turnovers, some costly turnovers they didn't necessarily earn those possessions, and then a couple fouls down the stretch just they caught up with us."

On the MSU side, it was all jubilation.

"We talked about it all week," senior forward Jubrile Belo, who finished with 11 points, said. "We even had a player's meeting. We talked about toughness, just bouncing back from our Monday loss and we came in with an edge today. We were focused. We just said they're not going to punk us. We haven't won here in a long time and we just had to put our hard hats on."

Both UM and MSU head out west this coming week for a two-game road series at Portland State and Sacramento State.