(MSU Billings release)
BILLINGS – The Montana State University Billings Yellowjackets jumped out to a 16-point lead just seven minutes into Tuesday’s Great Northwest Athletic Conference opener against Alaska-Fairbanks, and held on for a 79-76 win in MSUB head coach Mick Durham’s first game against his former team.
Durham left the Nanooks after seven seasons this past March to take the head coaching job at MSUB, where he is 4-3, 1-0 in his first seven games.
Reigning GNAC player of the week Tyler Green was the ‘Jackets biggest offensive contributor with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Green also set career highs in assists (6) and rebounds (5) in the winning effort. Zack Rollins also had 16 points for MSUB and Melvin Newbern Jr. subsidized the scoring with 11 points and six rebounds.
Fairbanks actually took the lead in the second half as the ‘Jackets went cold from the field, but MSUB overcame the deficit just in time.
“It was great to come back and win,” commented head coach Mick Durham after the game. “It didn’t look good for a while and we were fighting some foul trouble, but our defense the last five minutes made the difference. In a back and forth game, it seemed like each team had some rhythm going and then we just had some inconsistencies as a result of it being early in the season. Still, I was proud of our guys for how they battled back and defended our home court.”
There was no apparent nervousness from either team in the opening minutes of the game and both sides opened with strong shooting, resulting in a 5-5 tie just two minutes in. Newbern Jr. found a lane to the rim and slammed down a dunk to give the ‘Jackets their first measurable lead 9-5.
MSU Billings extended the lead to 39-34 at halftime thanks in part to a late three-pointer by Green and a dunk by Jordan Lehrer. The Yellowjackets shot 50 percent from the floor and held Alaska Fairbanks to 38 percent shooting in the first twenty minutes. Defense was especially strong and the Yellowjackets held Alaska Fairbanks’ top three scorers to a combined 11 points in the first half.
More success for MSU Billings followed in the opening ten minutes of the second half. The home squad extended the 12 points, its’ largest up to that point 50-38. Alaska battled back and Aushanti Potts-Woods made corner three-pointers on back-to-back possessions directly in front of an excited UAF bench. The result was the Nanooks’ taking their first lead since the second minute of the contest on a 12-0 run that was stopped only by a Brendan Howard free throw.
The ‘Jackets showed little panic and continue to find success in their long range shooting. Zack Rollins rolled in 3-point shots on two straight possessions, the second of which rolled in with just shy of five minutes to play. Green made it three-threes in a row seconds later and MSUB seized back momentum in the game as the crowd rose to their feet.
Down the stretch, the Nanooks continued their attempt at a comeback. A layup by Michael Kluting closed the gap to 78-76 with 40 seconds remaining. The next offensive chance for Alaska resulted in Alex Martin finding the front edge of the rim with a three-point attempt and Newbern Jr. wrestled down the critical rebound.
Newbern Jr. was quickly fouled and made one of two free throws to put MSUB ahead 79-76 with three seconds left. Spencer Sweet heaved the ball from well behind half court at the buzzer but it sailed wide, sealing the win for the Yellowjackets by three.
Eight players scored points in the game for MSU Billings including 13 for Brendan Howard off the bench in 20 minutes played. The Yellowjackets were in foul trouble early with 10 personal fouls in the first half but Howard’s ability to score points in the paint in the second half contributed to the team’s ability to hold the lead. Other players’ recording double digit point totals included Green (16), Rollins (16), and Newbern Jr. (11).
Potts-Woods led the Nanooks in scoring with 21 points on 8-for-16 shooting. Potts-Woods also made 5-of-10 from outside. Alex Baham (13 points), Spencer Sweet (12 points), and Michael Kluting (10 points) did most of the second half scoring for UAF.
BY THE NUMBERS: The Yellowjackets were outscored in points off turnovers 24-4 and the Nanooks had 31 points off the bench compared to 19 for MSUB. MSU Billings shot 49.2 percent field goals in the game including 43.3 percent from three point range. Conversely, Alaska Fairbanks shot 43.5 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from long range.
MSUB was 8-for-10 in free throws (80 percent) while Alaska went 6-for-8 (66 percent) from the line. The Yellowjackets also committed 15 turnovers compared to seven for UAF.
WHAT THEY SAID:
Zharon Richmond: “We were up big early and then they came back so we knew it was going to be a scrappy game, the first GNAC game. We just needed to come out and play hard and do the little things to come out on top.”
Richmond on grabbing momentum: “It feels like we got some momentum from this win but we have to reset after each game. We have to take it one game at a time to be successful. We have a lot of guys that can score in a variety of ways. The goal is to come together and trust each other and we’ll be able to come out on top.”
Coach Durham on players’ nerves in their first GNAC game: “I thought if they were going to show up, it would be early in the game but we got off to a great start offensively shooting it. Then later when we were down it might have been a time to get tight but that was when Rollins hit a couple big threes and that showed me that they were ready to compete and play in the GNAC and they came to compete.”
Coach Durham on MSUB’s balanced attack: “The biggest thing is we are trying to get some balance. Instead of just living with the jumper, we try to get some inside-outside balance and that’s usually what Newbern Jr. and Howard can do for us. Late in the game it was tough for us to get it inside. They (UAF) did a good job of defending us so it was tough.”
STAT TO KNOW: The Yellowjackets have played six games in the last 14 days and went 4-1 over that stretch (MSUB’s win over Rocky Mountain College was an exhibition). Tyler Green has posted double-figure point totals in all seven games this season and has 29 assists for MSU Billings.
WHAT’S AHEAD: The Yellowjackets (4-3, 1-0 GNAC) stay in Billings for three more games before heading on the road. The first is a matchup against conference foe Alaska Anchorage on December 1 at 7 p.m. Then MSUB hosts rival Rocky Mountain College on December 8 at 7 p.m. for EMC Throwback night. The homestand ends on December 18 when the ‘Jackets tip-off against Dickenson State at 7 p.m.
Alaska Fairbanks (3-5, 0-1 GNAC) returns home after almost a full week in Billings to play Alaska Anchorage on December 8.
THE BUZZ: Green was tabbed St. Vincent Healthcare player of the game. Green was named GNAC player of the week on Monday for his brilliant performance in the MSUB Thanksgiving Tournament last weekend…MSU Billings improved to 42-29 against University of Alaska Fairbanks all-time and are now 29-6 against UAF at home.