RENO, Nev. – The Montana State Bobcats didn’t return to Reno as the favorites in this Big Sky Conference tournament, but they proved they still now how to play on the postseason stage on Monday.
The defending tournament champs and two-time defending regular-season champs moved past North Dakota, 68-58, in the first round. A huge second-quarter run was the difference for the No. 7 seed against the Big Sky’s 10th seed.
North Dakota held a 21-18 lead near the midway point of the second quarter. Then MSU’s offense caught fire. The Cats ended the half on an 18-0 run, to take a 36-21 lead into the locker room. Freshman Tori Martell scored eight of her points in that stretch, including a 3-pointer at the buzzer. The spark plug finished with 10 points.
Head coach Tricia Binford credited her team’s rebounding work for the big run, especially because her Bobcats were under-sized against the big Fighting Hawks.
“What I loved was our effort on the glass,” said Binford. “That was kind of the difference maker, the X-factor going into halftime was the fact that we had 11 offensive rebounds. That gave us some second opportunities to really get going. But that was what we really addressed, was we were really playing with great energy.”
Overall, Montana State did lose the rebounding battle 47-41. And the Fighting Hawks’ all-conference center, Lexi Klabo, was a big reason why. Montana State couldn’t stop her on the inside, as Klabo finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds. But the rest of UND’s team shot only 12 of 41 for 29 percent from the field.
North Dakota did make a run early in the third quarter to cut the lead to seven, but MSU quickly responded to push the advantage back to double digits.
Then in the fourth quarter it got a little scary for the Cats. The Fighting Hawks climbed within three points with 4:39 still left on the clock, but a Rebekah Hatchard layup and two clutch 3-pointers from Delany Junkermier quickly built the lead back to 11, and the Fighting Hawks didn’t get closer than seven in the final minutes.
Hatchard led MSU with 18 points, many coming on aggressive drives to the basket. Junkermier struggled shooting most of the night, but she still scored 15 points thanks to the late baskets.
Montana State won the Big Sky title on the same floor the year before but were upset in their first game two years ago. Junkermier remembered both very well in her return to Reno.
“Obviously the year before we lost on a buzzer beater my sophomore year,” she said. “So coming back that first day was a little nerve-racking. Getting back on the floor (Monday) felt like I was kind of at home.”
Montana State will now look for its own upset in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. The Bobcats will tip off against No. 2-seed Idaho at 6:30 p.m. Mountain Time.