Courtesy: Montana State Sports Information
Tyler Hall scored a game-high 20 points and Sam Neumann registered his second double-double of the season to lead Montana State to a 62-59 win over Sacramento State in Worthington Arena on Saturday.
The Bobcat win followed a familiar script. MSU built a slight cushion and withstood a predictable late run, hanging on for a close win. MSU has won five straight at home, the last four by a margin of three points or less.
"We're just trying to find ways to get a little better every game," said Bobcat coach Brian Fish, who has presided over a season in which the Cats have managed a seven-game losing streak (in December) and win streaks of five and now three games. The Cats have won eight of their last 10, and the surge has pushed the team into a fourth-place tie in the Big Sky standings.
Bobcat senior Quinton Everett said the reason for MSU's improved consistency is easy to pinpoint. "I think we're playing better defense," he said. "We have a lot of guys buying in on the defensive end. We know that if we stop people we'll be able to score (enough to win)."
Hall boosted Bobcat fortunes early. He hit a deep three to tie the game at 4-4, then backed up to nail another to tie the game at 12. He hit a triple to give MSU a 15-14 lead, and another to push the Cats in front 18-17 with 6:18 to play in the first half. His 11th point gave the Bobcats a lead they wouldn't relinquish, and he finished the first half with 13 points, scoring four of the team's 10 baskets before intermission and assisting on two others.
Fish praised Hall, but called Saturday's victory a team win. "Tyler is a piece of the puzzle, but Devonte (Klines) has been playing well, Q(inton Everett) has played well, Sam (Neumann) has played well. We've got contributions from a lot of different people."
Chief among them Saturday was Neumann, who grinded out a 10-rebound afternoon against a front line measuring 6-11, 6-7,6-7. He added a career-high 17 points, most coming on a dazzling array of passes. Klines found him for a layup with a dump-down, while sailing toward the basket Hall flipped the ball over his head with a no-look highlight reel dish resulting in a layup, and Harald Frey helped create a score by dropping a dime.
"I'd call Sam a glue guy," Hall said. "He brings energy and does a lot of things that don't show up on the stat sheet."
Everett, the team's lone senior who is down to his last game in Worthington Arena next weekend, hit a jumper with 5:24 to play to push the Bobcats ahead 54-44. To that point, Sac State star Justin Strings had been quite. He didn't score in the first half, and when Izayah Mauriohooho-Le'afa found Strings in the corner opposite the Hornets bench about 10 seconds later he had accounted for just two points.
But Strings nailed that three – "That one was one me," Fish said, "I pulled Zach (Green) out there because he hadn't gotten going," – and followed with another on Sac State's next possession to draw the Hornets within six, 56-50. He hit another three-pointer, and with 37 seconds a layup to pull the Hornets within 62-59 with 37 seconds to play.
MSU scored only two points in the last three minutes, and when the Cats failed to get a good shot off Sacramento State possessed with 7.5 seconds to play. A solid defensive effort limited Matt Battaglia to a wild three-point try, and MSU survived.
"We're getting a little lucky," Fish said unconvincingly after another wild home win. "Some guys are stopping up to make plays. We just need to find a way to keep getting better."
After a wild offense-oriented game on Thursday, the Bobcats won with defense on Saturday. MSU held Sac State to 39% shooting – MSU shot just 36% - and importantly kept the Hornets off the foul line. Sacramento State finished the game 4-for-9 from the stripe, while MSU was 15-for-17. Eric Stuteville finished with a double-double of 15 points and 12 rebounds for the visitors, but he had 11 points and seven rebounds before halftime. Each team turned the ball over only seven times, but given the early moments of the game that's a remarkable figure for MSU. The Cats turned the ball over on five of their first 13 possessions.
The Cats hope the three factors Fish identified – some good luck, playmaking, and steady improvement – are present next Saturday when the team hosts Montana in its last home game of the season. Tipoff is 7 pm in Worthington Arena.