Courtesy: Montana State Sports Information
Montana State guard Harald Frey was talking about the waning moments of regulation in his team's thrilling 91-90 win over Eastern Washington in the Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon, but he could have been referencing nearly any moment of the last month of Bobcat basketball.
"This is conference basketball," MSU's unflappable freshman said. "We've got to be ready for anything."
The anything that presented itself then, a missed free throw by the Cats on the offensive end, followed by a desperation heave by Eagles guard Sir Washington that beat the buzzer to force overtime, may have proven deflating. Instead, MSU grabbed an early lead and won what Bobcat coach Brian Fish called "a free throw contest" in overtime.
"I really liked the fight I saw from the guys today," Fish said. "We didn't play with a lot of energy early, but they fought it. That makes you proud as a coach."
The game seemed unlikely to be competitive for a long early stretch. Eastern's sensational senior Jacob Wiley out-scored the Bobcats 6-1 in the game's first two minutes, and when Jesse Hunt and Felix Von Hofe hit back-to-back triples, the second with 8:29 to play before halftime, the Eagles led 28-14.
The Bobcats, it turned out, had plenty left in the tank, and the comeback was fueled by the bench. Senior Quinton Everett nailed a three-pointer with 7:49 left in the half, then Joe Mvuezolo drained a pair of free throws to draw MSU within 28-22, and after a Wiley layup Mvuezolo hit a three-pointer himself. Everett's three at 4:56 pulled MSU within three, and Frey's at 4:21 drew the Cats within two. Devonte Klines' jumper with 24 seconds left trimmed the margin to 42-39, which is how the half ended.
Frey found no blame for MSU's slow start in the team's double-overtime marathon 42 hours earlier. "It was a long game, but that's no excuse," he said. "(Eastern Washington) played on Thursday night, too. We just try to focus on what we can do something about, and we can't do anything about playing 50 minutes on Thursday. We just had to re-energize as well as we could."
That energy showed immediately after halftime. The Cats opened on a 15-7 run to claim a 54-49 edge when Mvuezolo hit another three-pointer. A game that would feature 13 times and three lead changes teetered back and forth the rest of the evening.
Montana State's greatest challenge Saturday was slowing down Wiley, EWU's supremely athletic post player. The former Lewis-Clark State star who began his college career at Montana scored 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting in the first half, and his 34-point total marked the 11th-highest ever for a Bobcat opponent in Worthington Arena.
But the Cats held Wiley to eight points in the second half, and just five in the extra period. The Eagles were further hampered by the loss of Bogdan Bliznyuk, who fouled out in the first minute of overtime.
Everett spent much of the night on Wiley, an assignment he said was unique. "I have not (guarded a player like Wiley while at MSU), but I know there will be times when I have to step up to the plate and try to give what I can, give a lot of energy so the other guys coming in guard with the same energy and play great defense on him. We made him work before he got the ball. As long as we make him work he's going to get tired, and once he gets tired he starts (holding) the ball low and we were able to strip it." Wiley finished with eight turnovers.
Fish said it was that energy, and some scheme tweaks, that helped slow the star big man. "In the second half we came from different angles and gave them different looks," Fish said. "I thought that helped us out a little bit."
Playing with a slim lead for much of the second half, Frey's three-pointer pushed MSU's margin to five with 18 seconds to play. But a three-pointer by Washington with seven seconds left, followed by an MSU free throw, then Washington's buzzer beater, forced overtime.
"That was definitely a big shot, a lot of credit to him, a huge shot on his part," Frey said of Washington's trey.
As the last minute of regulation began Eastern Washington had been whistled for only three team fouls since halftime, but MSU did most of its scoring in the extra period from the line. After a pair of Sam Neumann free throws to open the period – on the play Bliznyuk was disqualified – Tyler Hall nailed a three-pointer to give MSU a three-point lead. After a Wiley free throw, Everett nailed a pair. Cody Benzel's three pulled EWU to within one, but Everett hit two more free throws.
Mason Peatling hit a free throw, then Wiley tied the game with a lay-in to tie the score at 90. Everett missed a three on the ensuing possession, but came up with a steal a center court to give the Bobcats possession. Klines hit one of two free throws to push MSU into the lead, 91-90, with 28 seconds to play.
Von Hofe missed a shot to win with about five seconds remaining, but the ball bounced out of bounds off a trio of Bobcats with 2.5 seconds on the clock. The Eagles' shot choice on the inbounds play surprised Everett. "I thought they were going to lob it up to (Wiley) and try to draw the foul, but they chose to go with the three-pointer instead."
Ty Gibson's long three wasn't close, the Cats escaped with the victory, and an impromptu sojourn into the student section for a mass celebration followed. "It feels great because we're winning games and we're giving them something to cheer for. There's nothing better than seeing the (students) happy that we're winning and happy with how we're competing."
The crowd of 2,951 marked MSU's biggest of the season, and traces the arc of the team it spent 95 minutes of game action pulling for this weekend. "We've grown a lot this weekend," Frey said. "We're way more confident now in what we can do and I think we're definitely heading in the right direction."
Wiley scored 34 points with nine rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. He finished the game 14-for-18 from the floor, but MSU limited the rest of the Eagles to 20-for-49 shooting. Eastern out-rebounded the Bobcats 39-to-33, but each team shot 17 free throws and the Cats hit 14 of those to EWU's 12. The Bobcats hit seven of their eight charity tosses in overtime, and in fact MSU's only overtime field goal was Hall's three-pointer.
Hall and Frey led the Bobcats with 19 points, while Everett added 15 points and a pair of steals. Klines scored 11, added a career-high six assists, and logged three pilfers. Sam Neumann led all players by claiming 11 caroms, giving him 23 on the weekend.
The game's most amazing stat, though, was fell under MSU's ballhandling. The Bobcats dished out 20 assists, their most since November, but turned the ball over a season's low four time. That is MSU's fewest since giving it away three times against an NAIA opponent in 2013-14.
"I'm not sure I've seen anything like that," Fish said.
Montana State's win was its fifth straight, the longest for the Bobcats since 2009-10 and the longest in league play since 2004-05. After 95 minutes of basketball in less than 48 hours, Fish said his team earned Monday off. MSU is now 11-12 on the season, 6-4 in Big Sky play, while Eastern Washington is 14-8, 6-3. The Bobcats return to practice Tuesday in preparation for next Saturday's Bobcat-Grizzly game in Missoula.