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Montana State clinches first Big Sky regular season title in 20 years

Montana State Bobcats
Posted at 11:54 PM, Mar 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-02 13:57:57-05

BOZEMAN — (Editor's note: Montana State press release)

BOZEMAN—Flags fly forever, and Danny Sprinkle made sure his team knew it on Sunday night.

"When we got off the bus" after his team's loss in Missoula, Montana State's third-year head coach said standing in confetti on the Worthington Arena floor, "I literally was seething. It hit me on the bus ride, I need to make sure these guys know the opportunity we have."

The Bobcats turned that opportunity into history on Tuesday, when the Big Sky-leading Bobcats beat second place Southern Utah 69-53 to clinch the league's regular season championship. It was MSU's first since 2001-02, and the second since Sprinkle and his 1995-96 squad clinched the regular season crown with wins at Idaho and Eastern Washington in the last weekend.

After Montana State's historic win over the Thunderbirds, Sprinkle looked toward the rafters. "We had a team meeting (after returning to Bozeman Sunday)," Sprinkle said. "I brought them on the court and looked up at that banner right there. We were standing right here, the whole team, and I talked to them about the championship team I played on (in 1996) and how close we are to this day."

MSU led 9-6 at the first media time out, and Sprinkle noticed tentativeness in his team. Particularly, he wanted to light a fire inside point guard Xavier Bishop.

"There were words," Sprinkle said of that juncture. "One of their guys drove by (point guard Xavier Bishop) for a layup and I was (upset) about that and I was getting after him pretty good. But I called the next play for him, and I (thought), he's going to go one-on-one and score. And he did. We set a high ball screen with Jubrile, and he actually looked at me."

Bishop hit a short jumper with 13:13 left to trigger a run that left the Bobcats leading 16-10 with 10:48 to play in the first half. Southern Utah responded, and when Dre Marin hit a pull-up three-pointer just more than two minutes later, the game was tied at 16.

Bishop scored to give the Cats a lead, but Harrison Butler's three-pointer gave the Thunderbirds a 19-18 lead. It would be their last.

Abdul Mohamed started a 13-1 half-ending run with a dunk at the 6:47 mark, then Bishop hit a jumper, Jubrile Belo converted a three-point play, Bishop hit a layup, and Adamu's second-chance layup pushed the Bobcat lead to 29-19. Adamu ignited the Worthington Arena crowd by converting an alley-oop dunk with 35 seconds to play in the half, and the Bobcats carried a 31-20 lead into the intermission.

Montana State held Southern Utah, a team that shoots 48% and averages 80.6 points in Big Sky play, to 30% shooting and 20 points in the first half. Statistically things went incrementally better for the Thunderbirds in the second half, and the team chipped away at Montana State's lead. After Amin Adamu's second chance basket gave the Cats a 35-20 lead a minute-and-a-half into the second period, SUU responded.

John Knight III hit a three-pointer, and after a pair of Aanen Moody baskets, Knight III made a jumper and Maizen Fausett hit three free throws. SUU trailed 37-32. After a basket by RaeQuan Battle and two free throws by Bishop, Marin hit back-to-back triples and Knight III nailed a short jumper, and MSU's lead was 41-40.

In spite of the SUU run, Sprinkle remained pleased with his team's defense. "I thought we played really good at the rim, we made them play over us. And that's not easy to do. Knight, Tevian (Jones), Fausett, they're so talented at the rim, and they're athletic. I thought we did a good job on their three-point shooters, except for like a two minute span when we lost Dre Marin. He got going and they actually (drew within one)."

With 9:22 to play the Bobcats led 43-42, but when the team needed him the most, Bishop responded. He hit a jumper to give MSU a 45-42 lead layup, then pushed it to 47-42 with a jumper in the paint. After a Butler free throw, Bishop converted an and-one, and after SUU pulled within three Bishop hit a three-pointer to stem the tide. Then Mohamed drained a three and Adamu canned a short jumper. Montana State led 58-47 with 3:50 to play and Worthington Arena was ready to erupt.

The shortest man on the floor, Bishop, made the night's biggest plays. And even when the Cats struggled to get it going in the first half, Sprinkle sensed it.

"Xavier Bishop just wasn't going to let us lose," said Sprinkle, who as a precocious freshman on the 1996 Championship team played the same role by scoring 30 points in the Big Sky Championship game. "You could feel it just watching him on the court, the control he had and how aggressive he was. When he's aggressive like that he's really hard to guard. He makes our team so much better because he draws so much attention and draws two defenders. Even watching X in the first half, I was like, this kid, he's not going to let us lose tonight."

Standing on the Worthington Arena floor, a one-time one-year transfer who is playing with house money in the form of his Covid year stood with confetti in his hair and a piece of the net behind his ear. "It was an amazing feeling," Bishop said through an electric smile. "It's what you dream of as a kid, winning a conference championship, and it's unexplainable for real. Seeing the confetti come down, cutting down the nets and celebrating with everybody, I wouldn't want to do this with anybody else."

Bishop matched his career high 28 points, and until a pair of Adamu free throws closed the proceedings, Bishop had scored 18 of the team's 36 second half points. He finished the night 9-14 from the floor, 9-9 from the line, and dished out five assists without turning the ball over.

Bishop had plenty of company in terms of star performances. Adamu scored 13 points with six rebounds and two assists. Belo contributed 11 points and led all players with nine rebounds. Great Osobor grabbed eight.

Knight III led Southern Utah with 12 points and four assists, while Marin scored 11 and Moody 10. Fausett grabbed seven rebounds.

From a team standpoint, Montana State's defense was the story of the game. The Cats held SUU to 33% shooting on the night, and the team's 53 points is the fewest it's scored against a Big Sky foe by 11. "Tonight, to keep them to 53 (points), that was a tremendous defensive effort," Sprinkle said.

The Bobcats ran their record to 22-7 overall – the most wins by a Montana State team in the Big Sky era – and clinched a share of the conference title with a 14-4 mark. SUU is 18-10, 12-6 in the league. The Cats host Sacramento State on Thursday and Northern Colorado on Saturday, needing one win or a loss by both Weber State and Northern Colorado, to wrap up the crown.

But for Sprinkle, the evening's proceedings wasn't about a win, or a banner, or even a championship. It was about something much more lasting.

"Leaving a legacy means something," he said. "That 2022 (banner) is going to be up there forever. They're going to be able to come back (and see it) at any time, and the camaraderie this team will have forever is something they don't even know how special it is right now. I showed them my net from '96 and I told them about (teammates) Nico (Harrison) and Quad (Lollis) and (Adam) Leachman, (Scott) Hatler, Danny Sullivan, the whole team, and how special that bond is. That legacy, it's forever."