(Editor's Note: Montana State Press Release)
BOZEMAN — For a half, it looked like the Montana State men’s basketball team would be locked in an intense, physical battle with the Idaho State Bengals, who came into Worthington Arena with a perfect Big Sky Conference record and chips on their shoulders.
Whistles blew. Tension rose. The shorthanded Bengals, who have yet to beat Montana State during Danny Sprinkle’s head coaching stint with the Bobcats, almost looked like they would ride timely threes and interior play from Brayden Parker to their first win over MSU in seven tries.
Yet the Bobcats (11-7, 4-1 Big Sky) used a 7-0 run to kickstart the second half, then they blew the game open with a barrage of threes and a bevy of dazzling dunks from RaeQuan Battle (19 points) in an 81-68 win on Thursday.
“I thought we moved the basketball really well,” Montana State head coach Danny Sprinkle told Bobcat Sports Radio Network. “I thought Darius Brown II was phenomenal in our ball-screen offense tonight. [Idaho State forward] Brayden Parker only had nine points, but we got him in middle ball-screens and Darius did a great job attacking him.”
Montana State upended the Bengals’ (6-11, 3-1 Big Sky) defense, which came in surrendering only 68.5 points per game, by shooting 52.0% from the field and 37.5% from three. Going into the game, the Bobcats’ Achilles’ heel on offense appeared to be their free throw shooting. On Thursday, however, MSU made its first 10 free throws to finish 25-for-28 (89.3%) from the charity stripe.
Individually, Darius Brown II (18 points, 6-for-10 shooting) and Jubrile Belo (16 points, eight rebounds) gave the Bobcats a three-headed offensive attack that the Bengals’ defense couldn’t quite handle.
“Idaho State is a really good team,” Sprinkle, who now sits alone in ninth all-time at MSU with 67 head coaching wins, said. “They’re physical, they’re tough and they make you beat them.”
Setting the tone for what would be a physical game, Caleb Fuller and Daxton Carr got tangled up and hit the deck hard while trying to corral a Bengals miss. A flagrant foul was assessed to Fuller after the ensuing review, which made tensions rise between the two teams from that point forward. Although MSU would take an early lead off five quick points from Brown II and a three-point play from Belo, Idaho State would take a 21-14 lead off a 7-0 run midway through the first half.
As both teams got into the bonus late in the first half, MSU’s free-throw shooting was put to the test, as Belo and Fuller drew contact underneath. Yet the Bobcats would go on to make their first 10 free throws of the first half, which helped them chip away at ISU’s lead. An 8-0 run capped off with Brown II picking off a lazy entry pass for an uncontested layup out MSU up 26-22, then the Bobcats pushed the lead with Fuller’s three-point play on the next possession. Fuller — who finished with nine points on a perfect 2-for-2 field goal shooting and 5-for-5 from the charity stripe — was critical to the Bobcats’ comeback in the first half.
However, the Bengals hung around by making the extra pass and relying on threes from Ed Chang. A late 5-0 run helped MSU put the Bengals at bay, then the Bobcats took a 39-34 lead going into halftime.
Despite playing without starting forward Jared Rodriguez (10.5 points per game), the Bengals worked it inside to forward Brayden Parker, who drew the ire of the Montana State crowd with his hook shots and defense on Belo and Great Osobor.
Parker nearly turned the tide of the game in the second half, as he and Belo got tangled up near the baseline, leading to a foul called on Belo. After a lengthy review from the officials, the foul on Belo was wiped away, Parker was issued a flagrant foul and Montana State avoided having to sit Belo with his third foul. That flagrant foul sparked a 7-0 Bobcat run to open the second half.
Then RaeQuan Battle put on a show.
The junior guard got the crowd going with a lob, then he knifed through the paint and flushed a two-handed jam on the next possession. A bevy of threes from Sam Lecholat, Tyler Patterson and a step-back corner three from Brown II broke the game open, giving MSU a 61-44 lead with 12:58 to go. Minutes later, Robert Ford III — who was playing against his former team on Thursday night — found Battle for another lob, which brought the MSU crowd to its feet.
“[Battle] is such a great scorer,” Sprinkle said. “He’s really dynamic. He got downhill and caught a couple of lobs, which was great because they got the crowd going.”
Idaho State would make one more run to keep things interesting by switching to a zone and going on an 8-0 run as the Bobcats tried to run out the clock. The Bengals would get within nine points with 1:49 to go, but never closer. Montana State would finish 6-for-6 from the free-throw line in the final two minutes to seal the victory.
Ed Chang led the way for the Bengals with 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting. Brock Mackenzie, who came in averaging over 14 points per game for the Bengals, finished with four points on 2-for-6 shooting.