BUTTE — With the Frontier Conference player of the year sidelined, Montana Tech's men's basketball team was going to need others to answer the call. The Orediggers responded in force.
Five Tech players scored in double figures as the No. 10 Orediggers rallied from an early deficit and an injury to junior Caleb Bellach, eventually downing Westmont College 83-69 in the opening round of the NAIA national tournament on Tuesday evening at the HPER Complex.
The Orediggers will now face No. 24 Thomas More (Ky.) — which beat Eastern Oregon 66-44 — in the second round on Tuesday, with the winner of that game advancing to the Round of 16 in Kansas City, Mo.
Bellach went down in the opening minute with an apparent left leg injury after an awkward fall while driving to the basket. He was helped off the court and returned to the sideline after halftime in street clothes and with a brace around his left knee.
Shortly after Bellach's injury, the Orediggers found themselves trailing the Warriors 9-3 less than five minutes into the game before rallying back and taking a 15-14 lead with 11:03 remaining in the first half. Tech never trailed again.
In the first round of the Frontier Conference tournament, Bellach was held to just seven points meaning that others players had to step up to deliver the victory. Tech head coach Adam Hiatt said that experience was a factor on Tuesday as his team quickly realized they'd be without their highest-scoring player.
"Caleb's been so good all year but these guys are capable," said Hiatt after the game. "They understand the moment. Everybody all the way from top to bottom, I was just really proud of their efforts.
"We're in the single elimination stage of the season so we can't feel sorry for ourselves and wonder 'what if?' None of that stuff even matters. It's on to the next one."
Asa Williams and Camdyn LaRance led Tech with 15 points, freshman Hayden Diekhans came close to a double-double with 13 points and nine boards, Michael Ure had 13 points and Chrishon Dixon added 10. Tech's bench outscored Westmont's 32-10. The Orediggers converted 49.1 percent of their field goals to the Warriors 46.6.
Westmont was led by an 18-points performance from Drew Ramirez, 14 from Tone Patton and 11 apiece from Anthony McIntyre and Amir Davis.
Tech and Thomas More will tip off at the HPER Complex at 7 p.m. on Wednesday and Hiatt said his team needs to focus solely on their goal of advancing to the Round of 16.
"We're 40 minutes from Kansas City," Hiatt said. "If that doesn't motivate you I don't know what will."