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Damian Lillard in stands to watch Montana State Bobcats defeat North Dakota

Posted at 10:45 PM, Nov 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-28 00:45:56-05

(Editor’s note: Montana State University press release)

BOZEMAN – On a night when Tyler Hall passed the 2,000-point mark for his career, with NBA star Damian Lillard sitting baseline to watch his cousin Keljin Blevins, it was something completely different that caught Montana State coach Brian Fish’s eye.

“We’ve got to get tougher, tougher, tougher,” he said after his team earned an 81-76 win over former Big Sky rival North Dakota in Worthington Arena on Tuesday. “Tonight at times I thought we took strides in that direction.”

That nascent toughness was most prominently on display late in the second half, after the Fighting Hawks used a 13-2 spurt to turn a Bobcat lead into a 62-56 UND cushion. Bentiu Panoam scored on a layup then hit a three-pointer after an MSU turnover to give his team that lead, then answered a Devin Kirby layup with one of his own. UND led 64-58 with 6:33 to play.

At that point, the Bobcats took over. “Our defense down the stretch was big-time,” said Bobcat guard Tyler Hall. “I’m proud of that.”

Hall converted an and-one three-point play to begin a 20-10 game-closing run. North Dakota made only one basket during Montana State’s sprint to the finish, a three-pointer by Cortez Seales. Including Russell Daniels’ short jumper with 4:06 to play to cut UND’s lead to 67-65, Montana State made its last five field goals.

“I like that our guys slapped the floor and got some stops” late in the game, Fish said.

Blevins, Montana State’s senior forward, came up big for the Cats time and again. He led all players with 18 points, and grabbed six boards. “I’m happy that he played great in front of his cousin,” Hall said, referencing Lillard.

Hall had his own signature moment. With just under five minutes remaining in the first half, he hit a short jump shot to draw Montana State within 25-24. That shot gave Hall exactly 2,000 points in his remarkable Bobcat career. He became the sixth player in Big Sky Conference history to reach that plateau, and by night’s end his career scoring total reached 2,014. He is 20 points from the Bobcat career scoring record, a mark set nearly 50 years ago by Larry Chanay, and he is 155 points from the all-time conference record of 2,169 set by Eastern Washington’s Bogdan Bliznyuk last season.

Lost in the more high-profile storylines was the play of Kirby, the 6-10 sophomore who redshirted last season. He logged his first career double-double, scoring 14 points with 10 rebounds, shooting 5-for-9 from the floor and making all four of his free throws. Kirby shoots 64.9% from the floor this season.

Billy Brown scored 17 points to lead UND, hitting four of his five three-pointers. Panoam scored 15, and Seales, whose friendship with Hall dates to grade school, scored 14. “It was fun,” Hall said of playing his long-time friend and former teammate and rival possibly for the final time. “I’m glad we got that win.”

Tuesday’s win snapped a six-game MSU losing streak, and also brought to close a stretch of eight games in 22 days. The Bobcats lost six of those, but two of them came against teams in or on the verge of the top 25 and two more came to teams in the Mountain West Conference. MSU’s next game is December 9 against Washington State in Kennewick, Washington. The team has only one other contest – December 18 at Denver – before beginning Big Sky play on December 29 at Southern Utah.