BOZEMAN — The prevailing wisdom that emerged from Montana State’s 76-64 victory over Big Sky Conference foe Northern Colorado is that the Bobcats are far more dangerous when their primary goals are rebounding and defense, and not to simply outshoot their opponent.
MSU got a great taste of it Thursday night by outrebounding the Bears considerably (44 to 28) and limiting UNC’s star guard tandem of Andre Spight and Jordan Davis to 38 percent shooting.
There was no need for last-ditch heroics. The Bobcats closed out the game — and started 3-0 in the Big Sky for the first time in four years — with grit and toughness.
“I think it was a statement win for sure. It was a big win for us,” MSU junior forward Sam Neumann said after practice on Friday. “To beat a really, really good Northern Colorado team, it shows how good we can be.”
For statistical proof, the Bobcats are plus-45 in rebounding margin in their 10 victories. They average roughly 39 total rebounds (and more than 11 offensive boards) in those games.
Neumann and Tyler Hall each yanked down a game-high eight rebounds against UNC. Not to be overshadowed, Zach Green grabbed seven boards in just 13 minutes. Keljin Blevins, continuing his solid play, grabbed six.
For visual proof, coach Brian Fish pointed to the fact that MSU’s torrid rebounding took UNC out of its offensive flow. In turn, the Bobcats continued a key defensive trend — the Bears’ 40 percent shooting performance marked the third consecutive game in which MSU reduced its opponent’s scoring rate.
Of course, it helped that Hall put together another Hall-like performance — 28 points with seven 3-pointers. But collectively, the Bobcats saw first-hand that when they follow through on what Fish asks, their reward can be great.
To a man, MSU is more talkative on defense and its rotations are more crisp, which is something Fish has implored his team about since his tenure began in the 2014-15 season. The Bobcats are forcing more than 15 turnovers per game, which ranks respectably in the top 90 of Division I.
“Every day is a defensive practice. We hardly ever have offensive days,” Neumann said. “Coach is preaching if we want to get to where we want to get to, we have to be better defensively than we were.
“After these last couple games, everyone’s kind of seeing what we can do. These wins have I think shown everybody on the team that we are a really good team and we can get to where we want to get to if we keep working. That’s definitely helped everyone buy in.”
Now MSU looks to ride the wave of its three-game winning streak into Saturday’s matchup with defending Big Sky champion North Dakota at Worthington Arena.
The Fighting Hawks are coming off a blowout loss at Montana on Thursday and have dropped seven in a row overall — though they did push No. 19 Gonzaga to overtime on Dec. 16. UND hasn’t beaten a D-I opponent since November.
“They’re (the) defending Big Sky champs, they’ve got a lot of the same players, they play hard,” Fish said. “Like every team in our league they have some guys that can really play and I expect a full-court game. We’ll get their best shot.”
One such player is junior guard Geno Crandall, who gobbles up minutes and plays strong backcourt defense. He also averages better than 16 points per game and can be deadly from the perimeter.
Of note, UND’s Cortez Seales was an AAU teammate of MSU’s Hall, and Creighton transfer Marlon Stewart hails from Hall’s hometown of Rock Island, Illinois. So there is plenty of familiarity.
MSU hasn’t started 4-0 in the Big Sky Conference since the 2004-05 season, when it opened 5-0 under then-coach Mick Durham.
“One of the biggest changes from last season to this season is defense,” Neumann said. “We were awful defensively last year. Really bad. We kind of turned a corner, and now that’s definitely a focal point for us. It’s gotten a lot better.
“We’ve just got to stick with what we’ve been doing. It’s been helping us get the job done, so we’ve got to stick with it and have that same energy we’ve been having. Keeping everything together has been helping us win games.”