Montana State rally falls short at NAU

February 10, 2017

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — It didn’t feel like a one-possession game.

Montana State was thoroughly beaten by Northern Arizona through one half of basketball Thursday night, which rendered its spirited second-half rally unlikely. But by the time Devonte Kline hit a 3-pointer that pulled the Bobcats within five with 11:34 left, the Bobcats were alive and well.

And after Quinton Everett scored in transition to bring the Cats within three points with 34 seconds remaining, they look poised to steal another important Big Sky Conference road win.

It wasn’t enough. NAU’s 12-point halftime lead proved too large, and the Bobcats lost 69-63 at Walkup Skydome.

“We almost made it back,” MSU point guard Harald Frey lamented.

Certainly, the Bobcats corrected their mistakes after halftime. They shot 50 percent in the second half, protected the basketball (for the most part) and were far stronger on the defensive boards.

But that only underscores the first-half deficiencies. MSU left the court at halftime with 11 turnovers — which resulted in 11 NAU points — and had allowed the Lumberjacks to score 15 second-chance points on eight offensive rebounds.

The Bobcats had little answer in the first half for 6-foot-6 freshman Chris Bowling, who went into halftime with nine points and eight rebounds. Jordyn Martin was also a big factor (he would go on to finish with game highs of 23 points and 14 boards).

Needless to say, it was a frustrating first half for MSU.

“We just had too many turnovers, which took away chances to get baskets, which led to us to putting our heads down,” Bobcats coach Brian Fish explained.

“We’ve just got to take care of the ball. We’ve had games where we haven’t turned it over 11 times, but we had 11 turnovers in the first half, which didn’t give us a chance.”

MSU only turned the ball over twice in the second half, but the damage had been done. And the rebounding discrepancy — the Lumberjacks won that battle 46-34 and finished with 20 second-chance points — was in part due to the Bobcats having to sit Benson Osayande, who couldn’t escape foul trouble.

Montana State had to ride 6-4 forward Sam Neumann on the boards, and he responded like he usually does.

“We’ve got to keep (Osayande) out of foul trouble,” Fish said. “You take your most athletic big guy off the floor that will hurt you a little bit. But at the same time the other guys were fighting and we continued to battle.”

MSU shot just 10 of 19 from the free throw line altogether, but missed eight of those in the second half, making the comeback ever harder.

Neumann, who had team highs of 14 points and nine rebounds, chose not to make excuses afterward.

“We dug ourselves that hole, but I feel like we’ve got a good enough team. We could have come back. It just didn’t happen,” Neumann said. “We didn’t make the right plays at the right time.”

MSU shot just 34 percent in the first half and made 7 of 27 from 3-point range inside the cavernous Skydome. Tyler Hall was vexed throughout, finishing with a modest 13 points on 4-of-16 shooting.

The Lumberjacks didn’t fare a whole lot better, but they did outscore the Bobcats by 11 points at the foul line, which never bodes well for MSU. Fish pointed to the Bobcats missing three front-end bonus free throws, adding to their woes.

“When you dig yourself a hole you’ve got to make free throws to get yourself back into it. We didn’t,” Fish said.

The Bobcats were without forward Joe Mvuezolo Jr., who Fish said was left home with the flu. Mvuezolo’s absence forced MSU to go deeper onto its bench, as Mandrell Worthy and Devin Kirby each played double-digit minutes.

Fish hinted at the possibility that Mvuezolo could rejoin the team for Saturday’s game at Southern Utah, but made no guarantees. The last thing the team needs, Fish said, is for another flu bug to make its way through the roster.

With the loss, the Bobcats dropped to 11-14 overall and 6-6 in the Big Sky standings. NAU, which has won four in a row at home, is 7-18 and 4-8 with Montana visiting on Saturday.