BOZEMAN — Montana State has crept into rare territory.
A 79-68 victory over North Dakota on Saturday at Worthington Arena means the Bobcats have started the Big Sky Conference season 4-0 for the first time in 13 years. Not since the days of coach Mick Durham, Ja’Ron Jefferson, Nick Dissly and the late Al Beye — who collectively started 5-0 — has MSU jumped out of the league gate this fast.
Tyler Hall capped a torrid homestand by scoring 25 points, Joe Mvuezolo Jr. came off the bench to add 14 and the Bobcats dominated the rebounding battle for the second straight game.
MSU’s current success is built around a common effort.
“Everyone’s starting to buy in more and more with what we’re doing as a team and what the coaching staff is trying to do,” forward Konner Frey said. “Every game is another step we’re trying to take toward winning the Big Sky.”
That’s a lofty goal for a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 22 years, but the Bobcats have proven worthy, so far, of contender status. Still, coach Brian Fish pulled back on the reins a bit by colorfully noting the grind of an 18-game conference schedule that has only just begun.
“It’s an 18-lap race,” he said. “Got four laps done, 14 to go. And I’m fat, and it’s hard to run 18 laps.”
It will be a little easier if MSU continues to rebound and play defense.
Those facets were again vital to a winning outcome, which sent North Dakota, the defending Big Sky champion, to its eighth consecutive loss.
The game was back-and-forth until the Bobcats slapped a matchup zone on UND. Suddenly, a five-point lead with 4:55 left in the first half swelled to 14 by intermission. Hall and fellow guard Harald Frey combined for eight first-half 3-pointers, including a legitimate 30-footer that Hall heaved up as if it were a garden-variety perimeter shot.
And MSU continued to rebound with abandon, even from its zone defense. Hall and Frey each benefitted from tap-out offensive rebounds by making 3-pointers.
“They got us to take some quick shots, and we got some offensive rebound tip-outs that resulted in some big 3s, and that’s what separated that game from a four- to six-point game to 12 or 14,” Fish said.
“We didn’t quit on the ball. Guys created multiple possessions when maybe we shot it a little quicker than we wanted to, but we came away with three points. I thought that was huge.”
Meanwhile, North Dakota standout guard Geno Crandall, a holdover from last year’s NCAA tourney team, was held to just nine points on 4-for-10 shooting.
Montana State won the rebounding battle by a 42-29 count and had 15 second-chance points. In the weekend sweep of UND and Northern Colorado — a 76-64 victory on Thursday — the Bobcats grabbed 86 total rebounds, finished plus-29 on the glass and scored 25 second-chance points.
They also limited offensive miscues, especially Saturday.
“North Dakota is a championship program that’s been to the NCAA tournament. They know how to win,” Fish said. “They force people into a lot of turnovers, and we only turned the ball over 11 times. We took care of the basketball.”
Keljin Blevins continued his prolific work on the glass. Blevins, a transfer from Southern Miss, grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds while Konner Frey, a transfer from Utah Valley, pulled down eight. Veterans Sam Neumann and Zach Green combined for 12 rebounds.
“Overall we’re a little bit undersized compared to most teams we play, so we know rebounding for us comes down to just toughness,” Frey said. “We rely a lot on each other, trust in each other and make sure everyone’s got their box-out responsibility.
“I’d say it’s more about team rebounding than who ends up with the actual board itself. It’s a team effort, for sure.”
Hall finished the week with 53 total points and hit 13 3-pointers. Already MSU’s all-time leader in 3-point baskets, Hall moved into fourth place in Big Sky history with 279 career 3s.
Next up for Montana State is a trip through Portland State on Thursday and Sacramento State on Saturday as the Big Sky grind continues. The Bobcats won both games on that trip last season, which at the time was their first conference road sweep in two years.
For what it’s worth, the Bobcats haven’t started a conference season 6-0 since 2001-02.
“It feels great,” Green said. “We’re in a great position.”