(Editor’s note: Montana State University press release)
BOZEMAN — Montana State guard Harald Frey has been around the Big Sky Conference long enough to know one thing.
“It isn’t always going to be pretty,” Frey said after his 22 points helped lead Montana State to a 74-66 win over Eastern Washington in Bozeman on Thursday. “That’s conference play. This is our third game in six days, you just have to find a way.”
Frey actually found a lot of different ways. The junior also dished out eight assists, grabbed eight rebounds and snagged a career-high five steals. And on a night when Tyler Hall scored a season-low five points, snapping a seven-game streak of 20 points or more, the senior forward found other ways to contribute, as well. Hall finished with seven rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots, and three steals.
On a night of punches and counter-punches – the lead changed hands 12 times, and was tied eight times – Frey landed two of the biggest blows. With the Bobcats trailing 59-49 at the 8:50 mark, MSU rattled off 10 straight points. Frey drained a three-pointer to tie the score 62-62 with 4:48 to play. Then with the Cats trailing 66-64 with 2:35 remaining Frey ducked behind a screen and hammered home a 25-footer to give the Bobcats a lead they’d never relinquish.
“I always try to read the defense,” Frey said of that play. “I think I have a versatile game. I don’t have to necessarily rely on the three-pointer, or the drive, or getting to the free throw line to impact the game. (The EWU defender) kind of sagged off because I’d been trying to get at the basket for a couple possessions. When he backed off I saw an opening and let it fly.”
That three-pointer answered a Jesse Hunt layup that proved to be Eastern’s last points. The Bobcats finished the game on a 10-0 run, which Frey called a familiar theme. “We were in the same position on Monday,” he said of Montana State’s 69-66 win at Northern Colorado, “and what pulled us through was the defense. We shut them out to end the game. We always think we can score with anyone, that’s the confidence we have on the offensive end, so what it comes down to was defense. That’s the key.”
Neither team got much footing in the first half. The biggest lead was Montana State’s five point at the 1:53 mark, but Eastern scored three points at the end of the half to narrow the gap to two at the intermission. MSU shot 47% before halftime and the Eagles 42%, but the Cats turned the ball over nine times. “They were hurting us in the first half,” said MSU coach Brian Fish. “We weren’t playing particularly, but to not play well and not (trail) shortened it to a 20-minute game.”
The second half began as a tightly-played affair for about five minutes, but after the Bobcat took a 45-42 lead Eastern went on a 17-4 run to build the 59-49 cushion. That inspired Fish to make a defensive change. “They got on a run and I was worried about the juice they had,” he said. “We switched to zone with about eight minutes left and finished strong. We had to throw something at them, and we got aggressive scoring in transition there down the stretch.”
From the time of that defensive switch the Bobcats closed the game on a 25-7 run. Fish said the zone helped his team channel its aggressiveness, but that it was still up to those on the floor. “The players have to make it work,” he said. “We could put six out there, it doesn’t matter. They have to make it work. We made one mistake, then after that they had active hands, they rebounded out of it, they made it work.”
Frey agreed. “It definitely threw a different look at them. I think when we’re able to switch back and forth like that it gives us a different dimension when we do that properly. But regardless of whether it’s man or zone we have to make it work. If we don’t guard the ball there’s not a defense out there that can help us.”
Bobcat center Devin Kirby scored a career-high 19 points, and Fish said part of that came after Eastern Washington’s hard hedges on Bobcat ball screens in the first affected MSU’s offensive flow. “DK took advantage of it,” Fish said. “I’ve got all the respect in the world for (EWU forwards Mason) Peatling and (Jesse) Hunt, how big they are and how hard they play. That’s a major twosome to score on.”
Jacob Davison led all scorers, getting 24 points for the Eagles, while Tyler Kidd added 18 points with five assists and two steals. Keljin Blevins grabbed eight rebounds for MSU, sharing team-high honors with Frey, and the Cats out-rebounded EWU 37-to-35. MSU shot 45.5% to Eastern’s 41.5%, and the Cats finished 19-for-24 from the line while the Eagles were 5-for-8.
The win gave Montana State temporary possession of fourth place in the Big Sky with a 7-5 league mark, 10-12 overall, edging past the Eagles. Eastern Washington heads to Missoula for a Saturday showdown at 6-5 in the conference, 8-14 overall. Montana State hosts Idaho in a Saturday matinee. Tipoff is 2 pm in Worthington Arena.