RENO, Nev. – Montana State’s men’s basketball team started the postseason the same way it started the regular season, with a ton of energy and optimism.
But the Bobcats’ Big Sky Conference tournament run ended the same way their season did, with a crushing finish.
The Bobcats blew a 19-point lead over the final 10-plus minutes and fell to North Dakota in the first round, 76-74, on Tuesday.
“I thought we had tremendous energy, great leadership. Guys played incredibly hard,” said MSU head coach Brian Fish afterward. “It’s been a tough couple weeks for these guys, but we’ve gotten better. We just needed one little juice to get us a win there. Just let one slip away.”
The Fighting Hawks’ comeback started with a 10-0 run. They took their first lead of the game on a Dale Jones corner 3-pointer, his second in a row, with 2:13 left.
MSU answered with a great backdoor pass from Harald Frey to Joe Mvuezolo for a layup. Konner Frey then hit two free throws, and the Cats held a 74-71 lead.
North Dakota guard Geno Crandall came back with a slashing drive to a difficult layup, which he made through a foul. The North Dakota star made the free throw to tie the game at 74.
After Montana State failed to score on the next possession, UND held until the final 10 seconds to take its next shot. Crandall attempted a fade-away from the top of the key, but Devonte Klines blocked the shot. However, the ball landed right in Kienan Walter’s hands, who turned around and hit a shot in the lane for North Dakota just before the shot clock expired.
Montana State chose to immediately push the ball up the court instead of using a timeout, but Crandall stole the ball from Tyler Hall near mid-court. He was fouled with 1.1 seconds left and made one of two free throws. Konner Frey’s final full-court heave to tie came up short, and the Fighting Hawks celebrated while the Bobcats’ season ended.
“Some little things got away from us,” said senior forward Konner Frey. “I struggled a little bit in that stretch, as well. I had a couple really bad possessions that didn’t help us, and momentum started flowing their way.”
“I mean, it’s tough. It’s tough losing games, especially when they’re close,” said senior guard/forward Zach Green, who was battling through a hip injury and could only play nine minutes in his final game at Montana State. “So we were just trying to fight. But we had a hard time finishing games, and (Tuesday) was an example of that.”
Montana State started the game with great energy and completely out-played, out-hustled and out-worked UND for most of the game. MSU sprinted to a 13-3 lead. Crandall hit a half-court shot to cut the lead to 40-33 at the buzzer of the first half.
The Cats started the second half in much the same way. Konner Frey scored a layup with 11:24 left that pushed the Cats’ advantage to its biggest of the day at 19 points. The North Dakota comeback started a minute later.
Marlon Stewart made most of the plays for the Fighting Hawks in the closing run. The guard ended up with 29 points, with 17 coming in the second half. Crandall scored 18, and Walter’s last shot gave him 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting.
Klines led MSU with 16 points. Hall, a Big Sky second-team all-conference selection and the Cats’ scoring star, finished with only 11 points. Konner Frey, Mvuezolo and Sam Neumann each scored 10 points for MSU. But the Cats’ second-leading scorer, Harald Frey, was held to six points on 2-of-9 shooting.
Montana State’s season ends on a seven-game losing streak and with a 13-19 overall record.
North Dakota (12-19) moves into the Big Sky quarterfinals, where it will try to upset top-seeded Montana at 1 p.m. Mountain Time on Thursday.