BOZEMAN — Harald Frey spied Devin Kirby running up the court with 2:21 remaining Saturday night and fired a bullet to his streaking Montana State teammate.
Kirby snared the ball, dunked it, and 6,013 fans at Worthington Arena erupted as the Bobcats trimmed Montana’s lead to two points.
But what seemed like a crucial moment in a nip-and-tuck rivalry battle turned out to be the Bobcats’ last stand. The Grizzlies, doing what they do better than most Big Sky Conference teams, hunkered down defensively from then on and didn’t allow MSU to score on its next two possessions to close out an 83-78 victory.
After Kirby’s dunk, which pared Montana’s advantage to 77-75, Ahmaad Rorie missed a 3-pointer to give the Bobcats the ball back with a chance to tie or take the lead. But Frey was quickly trapped in the backcourt and he ultimately had to settle for a deep desperation heave with the shot clock winding down.
It rimmed out, and that led to a layup on the other end by UM’s Sayeed Pridgett with 54 seconds left.
On MSU’s ensuing possession, guard Lassi Nikkarinen attempted a floater that missed. Rorie was fouled, made both free throws with 29 ticks remaining, and that put the proverbial nail in the Bobcats’ coffin.
The Grizzlies outshot MSU, particularly in the second half, and outscored their nemesis by 13 points at the foul line. But when push came to shove, Montana’s defense prevailed.
Of the moment when the Griz trapped Frey in the backcourt near the far boundary off an attempted screen, which threw the Bobcats’ possession out of whack, Michael Oguine said “we really wanted to get the ball out of Frey’s hands and make someone else beat us,” though Frey did get the ball back eventually.
“You saw the shot that they ended up with, that deep, late-shot-clock 3," Oguine said. "And then from there it was just securing the rebound.”
“I guess they did a good job of countering what we were doing. We didn’t get what we wanted,” Frey explained. “We have to figure out a way to get closer to the basket. We never really attacked downhill, and that’s something that we’ve got to work on. It was a key possession and we came up short.”
Bobcats coach Brian Fish, who lost to Montana for the eighth time in nine tries, said Nikkarinen’s floating shot on the following possession was not one that MSU wanted.
Tyler Hall, who scored 21 of his game-high 26 points in the first half, was contained primarily after halftime by Montana’s Bobby Moorhead. Hall, the Big Sky Conference’s all-time leading scorer, only took seven shots in the second half, and none in the final 4:17.
“Not a shot we shoot. Not a shot we shoot. We don’t shoot that shot," Fish said. " (Nikkarinen) knows better than that. He’s got to learn from that. Go in there and jump-stop and go up and shoot it. Don’t hope and pray that it goes in.
“He’ll learn from it and he’ll be better, but he’s not been in that situation before. He’ll get in the gym, he’ll get a lot of shots up and make sure he corrects it.”
Fish, meanwhile, took the blame for the Bobcats’ other possession in question.
“That was a bad possession. I should have taken a timeout right there. That was my fault, not theirs,” he said. “Harry was forced into that shot. That was my fault. We should have got a better possession there. We got stagnant, didn’t move, and that’s me.”
The Grizzlies came in having held opponents below their season scoring average in 18 of 20 games. They didn’t quite limit MSU the same way — the Bobcats average roughly 77 points a night — but they stood tall when it mattered most.
“What I wrote on the board for the guys before the game was ‘hustle chart,’” Griz coach Travis DeCuire said. “We were going to have to out-scrap them to get the 'W.' There’s no way you’re going to come in here and get a pretty win.
“We had to find a way to defend in the second half. We buckled down, we slowed down, we made some adjustments and held them to 38 percent (in the second half) and that was really the difference in the game.”