DILLON — As a raucous home crowd bellowed out a chorus of "Happy Birthday" to Montana Western men's basketball coach Steve Keller, his Bulldogs were putting the bow on a fitting present.
A Frontier playoff victory.
Dom Robinson led Western with 15 points, Brandon Jones added 14 and the Bulldogs outpaced Montana Tech, 68-56 on Tuesday evening at Keltz Arena in the opening round of the Frontier basketball tournament to move Western within one win of the Frontier championship game.
As far as Keller can remember, a birthday victory was a first for him.
"I don't know if I've ever won a game on my birthday, but it was a big win for us," Keller said. "I thought defensively we set the tone. (Tech) is very hard to guard and they run their offense extremely well. I felt like we were fairly effective."
The loss ended the Orediggers' season at 12-18 overall and 4-15 in league play. Western improved to 24-6, 14-5 and will host Lewis-Clark State on Friday for the semifinals. The Warriors downed the Bulldogs in two of three regular season meetings, including a 101-96 double overtime victory on Feb. 16.
Jones and Zaccheus Darko-Kelly both flirted with double-doubles. Darko-Kelly finished with nine points and 10 rebounds while Jones — who sunk seven of eight field goal attempts — grabbed nine boards to go with is 15 points.
Tech's Jake Miles led all scorers with 18 points, including five triples. The Orediggers combined for 10 3-pointers, but ultimately only connected on only 19 of 52 attempts.
After grinding out four-point victories over Tech in their last two meetings, Western was intent on minimizing the drama this time around.
“We talked about that," Keller said. "We didn’t want them to stay close because their offense is so good. It seemed every time they called a timeout they scored on us."
Western built a 41-26 point lead by halftime and didn't give Tech a chance to rally after the break.
The Bulldogs, who had deployed a zone defense for much of the season, decided to shake things up and go to a man coverage scheme. The adjustment worked, often forcing Tech to take untimely shots and limiting the Orediggers to 14 points in the paint to Western's 36.
Robinson, Western's jack-of-all-trades point guard, was anywhere and everywhere on the court, connecting on three triples in the first half and finishing with four assists.
He kept the Bulldogs' most recent loss at the front of his mind.
Western entered the Frontier playoffs after suffering an 82-62 loss to Carroll College on Saturday in the regular season finale to snap a five-game win streak. The loss also meant that the Bulldogs had to share the regular season title with the Saints.
That both stung and motivated.
"We were rolling and (Carroll) kind of put us in our place," Robinson said. "We wanted to come back strong. We just wanted to go out and get the win. We had a good game plan and we just executed.”
Jones, who was seemingly unstoppable as he continuously attacked the rim en route to his near double-double performance, shared Robinson's thoughts.
"That loss really hurt us," Jones said. "We were definitely looking for revenge."
Though a Frontier championship is the ultimate goal, Jones said the Bulldogs are making sure to not look past Friday's clash with L-C State.
"We're just taking it game by game," Jones said. "They've beat us twice. We know we've got to come out and play hard."