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Backcourt leads MSU Billings men past Alaska Fairbanks, women split

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Posted at 8:31 AM, Jan 31, 2022

(Editor's note: MSUB Athletics release)

BILLINGS—Billed as a clash between several of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s high-scoring guards, the Montana State University Billings men’s basketball team beat the Alaska Nanooks 73-64 thanks to 28 points from Carrington Wiggins, 15 from Brent Finn and 14 from Damen Thacker on Saturday night.

The Yellowjackets (8-9, 4-3 GNAC) led the Nanooks (4-10, 1-7 GNAC) for the majority of the contest and MSUB made 25 field goals off 16 assists. Eight of the ‘Jackets who logged minutes scored, and Wiggins tied his collegiate career-high with 28 points on 10-for-17 shooting. Senior guard Brent Finn’s 15 points were a MSUB career-high, plus Damen Thacker had his second-straight double-figure night with 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting.

MSUB’s defense held the GNAC’s leading scorer Shadeed Shabazz to nine points on 3-for-10 shooting. Koby Huerta led the way for the Nanooks with 20 points.

“It was a great win for us,” MSUB head coach Mick Durham said. “It was tied with 2 minutes and 20 seconds to go, but we got a great spurt at the end and a couple defensive stops. Alaska is hard with Shadeed Shabazz and all their shooters. But we did a great job on Shabazz obviously, and we held him scoreless in the second half.”

Senior guard Damen Thacker, who tied the game-high with three steals, echoed his coach’s sentiment.

“We focus on our defense and we take pride in it,” Thacker said. “We have one of the best defenses in the country, and we pride ourselves in it. Our offense is going to come, but our defense can help us with that by causing turnovers and getting fast breaks. We’re hopefully going to ride that.”

Thanks to Damen Thacker, Carrington Wiggins and Nicholas Sebastiao, the ‘Jackets opened the game hot from beyond the arc. Three of the ‘Jackets first four field goals were threes, and they quickly took an 11-7 lead on Wiggins’ first field goal of the night.

MSUB’s bench also provided an early spark: A midrange jumper then back-to-back threes from Brent Finn got the crowd fired up and helped MSUB take a 21-15 lead. Then Jimmy Brown exploited a mismatch on the right block to give MSUB an eight-point lead with 7:30 remaining.

Wiggins found his rhythm in the first half, scoring six-straight points for MSUB after knifing through the lane, then making a three in front of the Nanooks’ bench. With 3:56 to go in the first, Thacker checked in and quickly scored, then helped provide the highlight of the first half by heaving a pass downcourt to Emmanuel Ajanaku, who gathered the pass and threw down a transition dunk to put MSUB in front, 35-28. That would be the last bucket of the half, as both teams struggled to make shots down the stretch.

Leading all scorers with 13 points after the first half, Wiggins stayed hot by opening the second half with a three. Inspired by taking a hard charge on the next play, Thacker retaliated with a personal 5-0 run. First, Thacker nailed a three at the top of the key, then in a savvy move, Thacker got his defender on his hip, curled around a screen and finished a difficult layup to cap off the run.

Alaska tried countering with a 10-2 run that was interrupted only by Wiggins second field goal of the half, but MSUB’s backcourt provided a response. Bilal Shabazz passed out of the high post to find a wide-open Finn, who sank a three, then Shabazz drew a foul on a floater in the lane and split a pair of free throws. Although Alaska hung around by making threes of its own, baskets from Wiggins and Brown gave MSUB a 56-48 lead with 10:34 to go.

Both offenses had trouble making field goals for the next few minutes until Sebastiao’s corner three put the ‘Jackets ahead 61-53. But the Nanooks had one last gasp and went on a 11-1 run to take a 64-62 lead with 3:09 to play.

But MSUB’s backcourt delivered the knockout punch: Thacker came up with a steal and found Wiggins, who sprinted ahead of Alaska’s defense and drew a foul after making a transition layup. His free throw gave MSUB a 65-64 lead that it wouldn’t relinquish.

“That was a big momentum swing,” Thacker said of Wiggins’ and-one. “We pride ourselves on our defense – we’ve been doing that all year. But a big play like that can change a ballgame, and when it happens late like that, it can really swing things.”

The ‘Jacket defense held Alaska scoreless for the final 2 minutes and 47 seconds, forced a turnover and made the Nanooks pay at the free throw line. In spite of taking a hard foul in front of the MSUB student section, Finn finished 4-for-4 from the free-throw line, then Thacker hit a pair of free throws with 24 seconds to ice the game.

“That’s just experience and leadership,” Thacker said of Finn’s late free throws. “You find ways to help your team be successful. Brent has been one of the best players on our team to do that. He finds ways to help us win. You look back at every win we’ve had, and he’s had a hand on every second of them.”

After Saturday’s win, MSUB will go on a six-game road trip. The Yellowjackets’ next home game will be against Western Washington on Thursday, Feb. 17 at 7 p.m.

“We had a rough one on Thursday, so it was nice to get a bounce-back win and get us ready for a long road stretch,” Thacker said. “We’ve got to get a little momentum within our group, and hopefully we can take care of business on the road.”

Meantime, MSUB's women, with only eight players on the bench due to COVID precautions, managed a split against Fairbanks. After losing on a last-second layup Saturday, the 'Jackets rebounded for a Sunday victory.

Chloe Williams shined early and Taryn Shelley finished one off her career high with 28 points as the women bounced back with a 77-71 Great Northwest Athletic Conference win.

Williams, a true freshman, had season highs of 10 points, eight rebounds, and four steals while making 5 of 10 shots in 22 minutes off the bench. “In the past couple of games I hadn’t played a lot of minutes, so I just knew that I needed to step up,” Williams commented on her mindset entering Sunday’s game. “I was just going to go hard after everything when I was in to make the most of it.”

Williams’ big effort helped MSUB shake off Saturday’s last-second 61-59 loss to the Nanooks, and win for the fifth time in the last six games. The ‘Jackets improved to 13-9 overall and remained in second place in the GNAC standings at 7-3 in conference games. “We had a really bitter taste in our mouths after last night, and we all just wanted to win so badly,” Williams said. “We all just came together, and it is exciting for us to get this win especially not having three of our starters.”

“I’m really happy for Chloe,” MSUB head coach Kevin Woodin said. “She got an opportunity this weekend, and she played really well both today and last night. Her first half today was phenomenal. She was all over the place on defense and offense, and she was a big key to why we won today.”

Playing with just eight players for the second straight game due to health and safety protocol, MSUB rode a 10-for-18 shooting performance from Shelley to the win. Shelley neared a double-double with eight rebounds, while adding two assists and a steal. “It’s amazing,” Williams commented on Shelley’s ability. “We always know we can get the ball down to her and she’ll score or make the right pass. She can do it all and she’s such a good leader. It’s really helpful having her there.”

Alaska freshman Pearle Green made 5 of 10 threes on her way to 21 points, while Destiny Reimers finished with 18 points and eight rebounds. The Nanooks fought back from a deficit of as much as 19 points, and out-scored MSUB 29-19 in the fourth quarter to stage a late comeback. The Yellowjackets converted 21 of 28 free throws however, using their late trips to the foul line to close out the victory. “I was proud of the way we competed,” said Woodin. “They cut it down a little bit at the end there, but I thought we made the right plays there to keep them from getting it to a one-possession game.”

Dyauni Boyce scored a career-high 12 points, while Danielle Zahn made a team-best three 3-pointers on her way to 11 points. Skylar Patton and Aspen Giese had four assists apiece, and Shannon Reny and Natalie Andreas each scored four points off the bench. MSUB shot 36.8 percent (25-for-68), including a mark of 28.6 percent (6-for-21) from long range. All eight players who suited up for the ‘Jackets scored, and seven had an assist or a rebound.

“I feel like I have progressed a lot,” Williams said on the first 22 games of her collegiate career. “We always go so hard in practice, and the starters are always making me so much better. We compete so hard against each other, and it’s because of them that I was ready to step out and play this hard.”

Caitlin Pusich made all three free throws after being fouled with 43 seconds left in the game, which brought the Nanooks’ deficit down to six points at 74-68. The chaotic final minute saw the visitors stay within two possessions, and they got as close as down four points on two more made free throws by Pusich. Shelley iced the game with a pair of free throws however, putting the ‘Jackets up for good with 1.1 seconds left on the clock.

“Towards the end we got a little bit out of sorts, but other than that we played really well,” said Woodin. “It’s hard to play the next day, for both teams, and this was a good team win.”

Pusich finished with 11 points and four rebounds, while Emma Wass had a game-high 13 rebounds for Alaska. The Nanooks shot 38.7 percent (24-for-62) in the game, 36.4 percent from long range (8-for-22), and made 15 of 22 free throws (68.2 percent). “We represent two of the youngest teams in the league,” Woodin commented on the matchup against Alaska. “We play four freshmen a lot and they play five, and the future is bright for them up there.”