BUTTE — As Montana Western built a lead, Montana Tech came calling, rallying time and time again before falling to the rival Bulldogs at home Thursday night, 75-71.
A slew of Western (18-4, 8-3) players contributed down the stretch in staving off the furious Chris O’Neill-led Tech comeback, but perhaps no player was more instrumental in eight-ranked Western’s win than Brandon Jones.
Jones was everywhere: on the floor, on the glass and at the free-throw line.
With just under 11 minutes left in the game, Jones went crashing to hardwood, sending a loose ball back over the baseline that led to a pair of free throws from Dom Robinson to add to the Bulldogs’ cushion.
Then again — with O’Neill fouling out of the game and Western up 71-70 with 39 seconds left — Jones went to the line, where he shot 7 for 11 on the night, and sank the pair.
Two more hits from the stripe without an answer from the hard-charging Orediggers was enough to keep the Bulldogs atop the Frontier Conference.
“He did everything, he played tonight. He was a man,” Western coach Steve Keller said of Jones, who he noted shoots below .500 from the stripe this season. “When he makes free throws, I told him he’d average 20 points a game."
Jones eclipsed that 20-point mark Thursday, notching a double-double with 23 points and 16 rebounds.
O’Neill was the go man for Tech (10-12, 2-9), putting up an invaluable 16 points, six boards and six assists. He scored on back-to-back mid-range jumpers with under two minutes to play to have the Diggers facing that 71-70 hole after trailing since early in the first half.
“He’s such a good two-way player, he’s a bulldog on the defensive end,” Diggers coach Adam Hiatt said of O’Neill. “I thought this game was the best game he’s played all season long … And then when he goes out, yeah, that hurts because he’s a guy that can get in the paint and collapse the defense and make plays for others.”
Keller said Western's success largely relies on its ability to get to the free-throw line, and Hiatt agreed that’s where the Orediggers lost the game.
Western went 29 for 37 from the line, whereas the Diggers shot 14 of 20.
“We wanted to hold them to under 20 free throws tonight,” Hiatt said. “Obviously we didn’t do that. We had a couple calls that didn’t go our way, they’re a tough team to guard and we fouled them a couple times late in the game.”
Indeed, a large part of Western’s success in getting to the line fell on the shoulders of Robinson, who scored 16 points on 9-of-10 shooting from the line, and added seven assists.
“He didn’t shoot the ball very well, and when he’s not shooting the ball well he’s got to penetrate and get other guys the ball and get fouled,” Keller said. “He’s a smart point guard and he does what a point guard needs to do to win the game.”
The Orediggers have come up on the losing end of two of their last three hard fought games after a rough start to Frontier Conference play. Thursday’s loss follows a three-point loss to Rocky Mountain and a three-point win over Carroll College last week.
“We seem to be in this situation a lot,” Hiatt said. “We’re on par with where we want to be in our growth stage, obviously we’d like to get over the hump a little bit, but at the same time, what else can you ask for? We’re playing a top 10 team on our home floor and it’s a one point game with under a minute and they just make big plays.”
Next up for Western is a chance to get one back on Lewis and Clark College, which beat the Bulldogs earlier this season. That Lewis and Clark team will be in Butte Friday to take on Tech.
“We’re a completely different team than we were then,” Keller said. “We just got to see what they do tomorrow night against Tech. We’ve just got to do what we want to win, and that’s get to the free-throw line.”