BOZEMAN — Mired in an eight-minute stretch in the first half where they didn’t make a field goal, Montana State found itself trailing at intermission of its Big Sky Conference matchup with Sacramento State on Saturday.
It was one of those painstaking-type games, and it took a dose of old-fashioned toughness for the Bobcats to bear down in the second half and ultimately prevail 84-70 in front of 2,723 vociferous fans at Worthington Arena.
MSU was still trailing by five points midway through the second half, but a 27-8 scoring run — made possible by a distinct rebound advantage and the ability to draw fouls and make free throws — carried it to the finish line.
“Our captains and our seniors, they always say that in conference, no game’s going to be pretty,” said sophomore big man Devin Kirby. “It’s always going to be ugly and the game is always going to come down to the second half — the last eight minutes, six minutes.
“So we’ve just got to do a good job of always defending and rebounding, executing our offense and getting to the free throw line.”
Guard Harald Frey scored a game-high 21 points, and backup Lassi Nikkarinen again was a spark of the bench, scoring 14 points while making 10 of 12 free throws in the second half and scrambling on the floor for loose balls.
For Frey, it was his eighth consecutive game in double figures. He has averaged 24.0 points over his last three games. Frey was honored before Saturday’s tip-off for joining MSU’s 1,000-point club during Thursday’s victory over Portland State.
The Bobcats’ ability to win the rebound battle 38 to 27, as well as their accumulation of 30 points in the paint, helped mitigate a nine-point showing from Tyler Hall. Kirby added 14 points and five rebounds.
Keljin Blevins had 10 points and 10 boards despite struggling in the first half and taking a benching from coach Brian Fish. Blevins’ powerful dunk underneath with 19 seconds left was an exclamation point for the senior forward, who rose to the occasion down the stretch.
“I benched him and he could have pouted. He didn’t. He finished with a double-double,” Fish said. “That’s, ‘Coach, you’re wrong, and I’m going to show you you’re wrong.’ He started out 0 for 5 and (was) 3 for 4 in the second half and got to double figures and 10 rebounds.
“I thought he was (head) and shoulders above other guys getting those balls. I loved the response. I challenged him and he responded.”
Montana State made 33 of 42 free throws, including 20 of 27 in the second half. Sacramento State, by comparison, finished 8 for 11 from the line.
As the final buzzer sounded, the ball bounced toward Hornets coach Brian Katz, who was visibly agitated with the officials and kicked it across the court.
Seemingly to their detriment, though, the Hornets got away from what they do best and uncharacteristically launched 31 3-pointers, making 10, which is double their per-game season averages. The Bobcats, meanwhile, didn’t settle for long-range shots, making just 5 of 14 of their 3-point tries.
“That was my nightmare and it came true,” Fish said. “If you had asked me and noon today if they hit 10 3s, I would have told you we’d be in a lot of trouble. And we were in a lot of trouble. But we compensated for that by attacking the basketball and not being a perimeter team.”
The victory was in contrast to the Bobcats’ loss at Northern Arizona on New Year’s Eve, when they let a second-half lead slip away.
Frey characterized that defeat as a learning moment, and the lesson was applied on Saturday.
“It was like, ‘Guys, at some point we’ve got to take a stand and not rely on skill and fresh legs, and kind of grit one out,” Frey said. “Roll up the sleeves and get a dirty win. And I felt we did that today.”
Montana State improved to 6-8 overall and to 3-1 in the Big Sky in advance of Thursday’s game at Idaho. Sacramento State, after also losing Thursday at Montana, is now 6-6 and 0-3.
NOTES: Hall’s career point total now sits at 2,123, putting him 47 points shy of breaking the Big Sky Conference’s all-time scoring mark. Hall is currently No. 2 all-time behind ex-Eastern Washington forward Bogdan Bliznyuk, who established the record of 2,169 points just last season.