(Editor's Note: Montana State Press Release.)
CHENEY, Wash. — Clutch offensive rebounds, and big shots from Darius Brown II helped the Montana State men’s basketball team spoil Eastern Washington’s senior night by winning 79-74 during the regular-season finale on Monday night.
In a season marked by significant conference wins, the Bobcats (22-9, 15-3 Big Sky Conference) picked up yet another against the Eagles (22-9, 16-2 Big Sky Conference). Prior to Monday night, MSU hadn’t won at Reese Court since Feb. 24, 2011.
The Bobcats only trailed for 33 seconds early in the first half before the offense kicked things into gear and didn’t look back. MSU led by 13 at half, extended its lead to 17 in the second half and weathered a 17-3 Eastern Washington run in a fast-paced, competitive game between the conference’s top two teams on a night where both teams could have rested with their top two seeds secured. Instead, the teams delivered one of the most entertaining games of conference play.
“That’s not our program and that’s not me,” Montana State head coach Danny Sprinkle told the Bobcat Sports Radio Network. “If there’s a game and we’re wearing a Montana State jersey, we’re going to come out and compete for 40 minutes — I don’t care if it’s in a parking lot outside, or it’s in [Reese Court].”
Darius Brown II was one of three Bobcats to finish in double-figures with 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting — including two backbreaking threes to beat the shot clock. He also finished with four assists, five rebounds and a steal. RaeQuan Battle carried the offense early by scoring 12 of his 16 points in the first half, then Jubrile Belo added 16 points — most of which came in the second half to offset EWU’s comeback attempt. Moments after Brown II’s deep three beat the shot clock, Belo’s offensive rebound and put-back dunk over Casey Jones with 1:12 remaining put MSU up 75-69.
“We had some big-time plays,” Montana State head coach Danny Sprinkle told Bobcat Sports Radio Network. “I thought Jubrile Belo’s offensive rebound and dunk was huge. You can’t say enough about Darius Brown II — he was hoopin’.”
Yet the biggest play down the stretch was an offensive rebound from Robert Ford III.
As MSU clung to a 75-71 lead with less than a minute to go, Ford III swooped in to corral a missed Battle jumper, wisely bolted past the three-point line to reset the offense and was fouled with 28 seconds to play. He made both free throws to ice the game, then was fouled with 12 seconds to play and sank those as well. Ford III finished with a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double off the bench with two steals and an assist.
“Robert Ford III was the key to us winning the game,” Sprinkle said. “I remember watching Rob on film when he was at Idaho State, and he singlehandedly won the game at Eastern Washington. I told him, ‘You’re back in your element now. This is your gym tonight.’”
MSU would need each one of Ford III’s points and rebounds to fend off the Eagles, who came into Monday’s game reeling from their first loss in the calendar year on Saturday. The Bobcat defense helped keep the league’s best defense in check by forcing 12 turnovers, winning the rebounding battle 29-25 and limiting the Eagles to just 19 three-point attempts. EWU shot 51.9% from the field, but MSU outdid them by connecting on 52.7% of its field goals and 87.5% of its free-throw attempts.
Early in the first half, the Bobcat offense went blow-for-blow with the Eagles’ top-ranked unit. Locked in a close 8-6 game with 15:14 to play, the Bobcats went on a 12-2 run sparked by eight points from Battle, who would outscore the Eagles as a team with 10 of MSU’s 20 points as the Bobcats took a 20-8 lead midway through the first half. That lead ballooned to 16 off threes from Ford III and Brown II that bookended an alley-oop from Brown II to Belo that took the energy out of the building. Another 6-0 run late helped MSU take a 36-21 lead with less than three minutes to go, then Nick Gazelas’ elbow jumper with 40 seconds left capped off the MSU scoring in the first half.
Leading 38-25 after the first half, the Eagles went to their stars Steele Venters (23 points) and Angelo Allegri (19 points), who scored EWU’s first 11 points of the second half. Another extended run from Brown II, Belo and two more threes from the Bobcat backcourt helped MSU push its lead to 17 with 12:56 to play. Although backup center Dane Erikstrup helped the Eagles chip away at the lead, back-to-back buckets from Gazelas and Great Osobor put MSU back up 66-51 with 9:55 remaining.
MSU would have to weather one more comeback attempt from the Eagles. Eastern Washington took advantage of turnovers and empty Bobcat possessions, then caught fire from beyond the arc as they went on a 15-2 run over the next 5 minutes and 21 seconds to make the score 66-62. As the Eagle crowd got back into the game, MSU stopped the run with a pair of Battle free throws, then Belo’s layup off an inbounds play helped make it a two-possession game with 3:43 remaining.
“We were moving the ball really well for the majority of the game,” Sprinkle said. “There was a three-minute stretch in the second half where we were stagnant, but give the guys credit. Eastern Washington is really tough at the rim.”
Eastern Washington would cut MSU’s lead to three, 70-67, with 2:39 to play, but Brown II’s shot-clock-beating three from in front of MSU’s bench, then Belo’s second-chance dunk helped put the game out of reach. Ford III’s offensive rebound and four straight free throws sealed the deal on the 79-74 win.
From here, MSU will travel to Boise, Idaho for the Big Sky Conference Tournament, held at the Idaho Central Arena starting Sunday, March 5 at 8 p.m. The 2-seed Bobcats will play the winner of the 7-seed Portland State and 8-seed Northern Colorado.
“We’re excited for the Big Sky tournament,” Sprinkle said. “We have to rest up, get the guys off their legs and get some treatment. We’ll be ready to rock and roll Sunday at 8.”