BOZEMAN — (Editor's Note: Montana State Press Release)
Montana State was put to the test again late in a game in Worthington Arena as Northern Arizona, having trailed by as many as double digits in the second half, tied the score at 70 with 35 seconds remaining. But recent success continued to be on the Bobcats' side as Xavier Bishop converted on a contested layup with six seconds left and a Lumberjack turnover on their ensuing possession led to a 72-70 victory for the Montana State men's basketball team on Saturday.
The victory improved MSU to 20-5 overall. The 20-win season is the Bobcats' first in 20 years while the 20-5 mark matches the program's best 25-game start to a season in its Division I history that spans 60 years.
Montana State led by 12 at one point in the second half and was up 9 with 4:29 left on the clock. NAU whittled away at the margin behind a three-point play by Jalen Cone and consecutive 3-pointers by Keith Haymon and got the score to 68-67 with 2:03 to go. After trading baskets, RaeQuan Battle hit a jumper to put MSU ahead 70-67 at 52 seconds remaining. But the Lumberjacks again connected as Nik Mains drained a 3-pointer and the score sat at 70-all.
Despite going 2-for-15 from the field the previous two games, Bishop stepped up to make the biggest basket of the day.
"Just being aggressive," Bishop said of his mindset heading out of a Bobcat timeout with 28 seconds on the clock. "I hadn't had the best shooting game the last two games, but my coaches and teammates told me to stay aggressive. I had to find other ways to help the team win, whether it's assisting or defending, but coaches told me to keep going. Even if I'm shooting 1 for 10, they just tell me to keep going.
"Having that confidence from your coaching staff and teammates is really helpful."
The Bobcats left the option for Bishop to drive the lane and kick to Jubrile Belo, but Bishop found the opening and dribbled towards the basket. Bishop went off glass on a right-handed layup and drove through a charge attempt by NAU's Ajang Aguek. Bishop's attempt counted on a block call and he put the Bobcats ahead with six seconds to go.
"Xavier just made a tremendous play," Montana State head coach Danny Sprinkle said. "We wanted to get him off a ball screen. We knew that they weren't going to help off Tyler (Patterson) on the strong side, so we told him to attack. Even if he misses, we have Jubrile to get a tip dunk.
"It was close, but it was the correct call. Their guy was in the circle, but we've got calls like that too."
Bishop was unable to convert his following free throw attempt and the Lumberjacks tried to break up the court in transition. Cone had the ball dribbling up court but he lost the handle and the clock expired to close out MSU's 10th victory on its home floor this season.
"It's a conference game," Sprinkle said. "I expect every game to come down to the last two minutes. As competitive as this league is and the players in it, every team always has another run in them.
That's what's so encouraging about our guys finding ways to win. We're making a lot of mental mistakes and breakdowns, but we're making the play when it has to be made. It's good to win and still be able to clean some of this stuff up."
Montana State led by six at halftime by owning a 53.6-40.7% shooting edge from the field. However, the Bobcats couldn't keep the Jacks off the glass as NAU outrebounded MSU 36-32. NAU was able to get back into the contest by shooting 43.3% in the second half and hitting five 3-pointers. MSU in the end capitalized off 13 NAU turnovers.
Bishop's 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting were his most in his college career in Worthington Arena. He also tied for a team-high six rebounds and led MSU with four assists. Joining him in double digits scoring were Belo (14) and Battle (13). Belo finished with four blocks which improved his total in his career to 106, moving him past Tryg Johnson for the second most blocks in program history.
The Lumberjacks had three double-digit scorers in Haymon (17), Cone (15) and Mains (10). Cone, the second leading scorer in the Big Sky entering the contest, finished 4-for-17 from the field. He and Carson Towt had five assists apiece for the Jacks that fell to 9-16 overall, 5-9 in Big Sky play.
Montana State extended its winning streak to 11 games which trails only the 1994-95 team's 12 straight victories for the longest span during the Bobcats' Division I era. The Bobcats will be put to the task with their next three games scheduled on the road. MSU is slated next to face Eastern Washington on Thursday, Feb. 17, in Cheney.