CEDAR CITY, Utah – Four players scored in double digits and tough play through all 40 minutes helped propel the Montana State men’s basketball team to a 76-71 win over Southern Utah at the America First Event Center on Saturday.
Less than 48 hours after an overtime defeat at Eastern Washington that ended an 11-game winning streak, the Bobcats returned to the hardwood to face the Thunderbirds, last year’s Big Sky regular season champion as well as a team just one loss behind MSU in the conference standings.
Montana State had 11 turnovers in the opening 20 minutes but hung with Southern Utah by out-rebounding the T-Birds by 11. The Bobcats also shot over 54% from the field as they took a 33-32 edge into halftime. Southern Utah’s largest advantage of the first half was just a 24-21 margin.
“I’m proud of our team for a lot of different reasons,” Montana state head coach Danny Sprinkle said. “We battled through a lot of stuff in the first half. We had some mistakes, had some sloppy turnovers, but our guys kept battling. I’m most proud of how we responded after an emotional, tough loss Thursday…
“The guys just came out and competed their tails off. I told the guys that is leadership and culture that got us that win today.”
Montana State and Southern Utah continued to exchange leads in the opening five minutes of the second half before the Bobcats took control of the contest. An Xavier Bishop layup at the 14:50 mark put MSU ahead 42-41. That began what would be a 10-2 run for the Bobcats over a two-minute span that put the visitors in front for good.
The T-Birds cut the deficit to 62-60 with 4:30 remaining, but consecutive trips to the free throw line by RaeQuan Battle and Abdul Mohamed pushed the margin out of a single possession score for the remainder of the game.
The Bobcats finished 27-for-53 (50.9%) from the floor while holding the Thunderbirds to a 43.1% mark. That included holding Southern Utah to just 7 of 24 (29.2%) from 3-point range. MSU cut down on its turnovers in the second half losing the ball just six times, while the Bobcats finished with a 37-22 edge on the glass. MSU also went 18 of 19 at the free throw line for a season-high 94.7% clip.
Bishop paced the Bobcat scoring effort by going 8-for-16 shooting and finishing with 19 points. Battle scored a season-high 17 points off the bench playing nearly 28 minutes while also registering a pair of blocks and steals.
“Xavier was tremendous,” Sprinkle said. “He had the ball in his hands a lot today. They’ve got some really athletic guys they were running at him and they did a good job guarding him, he just made some big plays.
“Raequan was tremendous again as well. He keeps getting better. He’s doing a really good job defensively, that’s where he’s made the most improvement.”
Joining the duo in double digits were Jubrile Belo (12) and Amin Adamu (10). Belo and Abdul Mohamed each led the team with seven rebounds apiece.
Southern Utah had five double-digit scorers led by Jason Spurgin’s 14. The T-Birds’ leading scorer in Tevian Jones finished 1 of 9 shooting with three points.
Montana State returned to the win column and improved to 21-6 overall and 13-3 in Big Sky play. The Bobcats’ 21 wins matches their highest win total during their Big Sky era. MSU’s 13 victories in league action is the most ever for the program.
“I’m not satisfied,” Sprinkle said. “I’m not happy with 13, we’ve got to keep going. We have four games left and we’ve got keep looking at it one game at a time. We need to keep getting better.
“Next Sunday when we go to Missoula, those 13 wins don’t mean anything. The championship game is 21 days from right now almost to the hour. That’s what we’re working for.”
Montana State has over a week off before beginning a stretch of four games in a week span to end the regular season. The Bobcats travel to Missoula to face Montana at 3 pm on Sunday, Feb. 27, with the game broadcast by ESPNU.