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With Frontier Conference history secured, No. 8 Montana Tech men look to national stage

Posted at 9:00 AM, Mar 06, 2024

BUTTE — It wasn't until after the Montana Tech men's basketball team had defeated Carroll College for the fourth time this season — this time a 93-77 win for the Frontier Tournament championship — that Orediggers head coach Adam Hiatt was informed that the third consecutive tournament title his team had just secured matched the same feat accomplished by former Tech coach Kelvin Sampson.

"I honestly didn't realize that (Sampson) had won three straight conference tournament championships until that was brought to my attention after we had concluded the game," said Hiatt. "Just to hear that was quite humbling."

Sampson's teams strung together the Frontier's first tournament three-peat between 1983-85 but locked up regular-season titles in just the later two seasons of that run.

By claiming both the league regular-season and tournament crowns the past three seasons, No. 8 Tech has once again carved out another piece of history in a three-season span that has seen the Orediggers add a multitude of entries to their resume, including their first national tournament appearance in 2022 and their first trip to the Round of 16 in 2023.

"That's pretty incredible that it's never happened, three straight regular and three straight tournament championships," said Hiatt. "It just shows how deep the league is and how incredibly difficult it is to sustain that success from year to year. Just to be part of this small piece of history is immensely satisfying."

Tech is now riding a 12-game win streak and has won 18 of its last 19 games. But the catalyst for that eye-catching run began just before that when the Orediggers dropped two of three games during a California road trip back in December.

"We weren't playing very good basketball, and we came back and had this renewed focus on how we wanted to be grittier and tougher," said Hiatt. "We wanted to play better as a team."

That newfound togetherness was evident in Tech's conference opener at home against Rocky Mountain College where the Orediggers outlasted the Battlin' Bears 85-80 in overtime. And it was evident in the semifinal round of the Frontier Tournament where Tech survived Montana Western 83-82 off a last-second go-ahead tip-in from Ieanyi Okeke.

"I think without that tough month of December we would not have been able to pull out these close games," said Hiatt.

For the second straight year, Tech is now set to follow up a Frontier tournament championship by hosting NAIA first- and second-round national tournament games next week on Friday, March 15 and Saturday, March 16. On Thursday, the Orediggers — coming off a run to the Round of 8 last year — will learn their seeding and which three teams will come to Butte. The winners of the two first-round games will play a second-round contest to determine who earns the right to go to the final site in Kansas City.

"It's one game at a time," said Hiatt. "We have one game guaranteed from this point forward. Our next loss will be our last loss of the year. So we could play one game, up to six. And we want to see how many games we can play together."