BOZEMAN — The words “urgency” and “must-win” had been thrown around a lot in these parts over the course of the past three days, but Brian Fish, who’s seen his share of peaks and valleys during his five-year stint as coach at Montana State, was never too anxious.
Yes, the Bobcats were in fairly desperate need of Saturday’s 104-84 victory over Idaho State — a game in which MSU snapped a three-game losing streak with renewed defensive intensity and a highlight-reel performance from guard Harald Frey in the second half.
Fish, though, remained pragmatic despite his team’s malaise.
“I think the one thing that we have to look at, when you play a 20-game conference schedule, there’s going to be a little bigger road bump than in a 12-, 14-game league schedule. And everybody’s going to go through it,” Fish said in the postgame interview room.
“I certainly don’t mean any disrespect to anybody in this league, but I thought for the most part during the three-game losing streak, we were more at fault why we were losing than what the teams were doing to us.
“That’s good. You’ve got a chance to correct that.”
The Big Sky went back to a 20-game schedule this season out of necessity when North Dakota departed for the Summit League. There's a lot of season left, and Fish isn’t hitting the panic button yet.
Accordingly, the Bobcats got back to playing their desired style against Idaho State.
They were more active defensively in the half court, and forced 17 turnovers off which they scored 29 points. And they got out and pushed the pace offensively, found the open man and shot the ball with noticeable confidence.
And when push came to shove — as ISU reduced the Bobcats’ 15-point lead down to four midway through the second half — Frey sounded the death knell. The junior guard from Oslo, Norway, blitzed the Bengals with three 3-pointers and 11 points in a stretch of just 1:38 to put MSU back up by double digits.
Frey scored 21 of his career-high-tying 31 points and made five 3s in the second half.
“The basket definitely felt big,” said Frey, who helped MSU shoot 65 percent after halftime. “There were good screens and good passes, and I kept getting open. That makes basketball easy. You just have to put it in the hoop.”
In consecutive losses to Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington and Weber State, the Bobcats allowed their opponents far too much offensive comfort. Those teams torched MSU to the tune of 53-percent shooting, including a 42 percent showing from 3-point range.
And while Idaho State made 55 percent of its shots Saturday, the Bobcats were much more active, swarming for 17 takeaways that resulted in 29 points on the other end.
“I think at certain points we bothered them a little bit, and that came down to key stops,” said Frey, who added four rebounds and five assists. “They had their runs. They’re a great offensive team. They shoot really well. We’re not going to hold them to zero points, you know?
“But it’s just making sure we play the percentages and (them) taking the shots we want them to take, and I think we did a better job of doing that today.”
Fish credited Frey by saying, “His mental aspect of that game is way bigger than 31 points and five assists. He got us going, he got going downhill, attacking the basket making plays, getting it out of his hands, playing at a different pace.
“You looked at that play late in the first half where they tried to lob over and he comes from 18 feet away, steals it and we go down and score. Those little things don’t show up on this (stat) sheet but those are hustle plays that I thought were very important.”
Frey was the catalyst for improved ball movement. The Bobcats had 20 assists as a team and only turned the ball over six times.
Tyler Hall scored 14 of his 26 points in the second half to more than complement the scoring. MSU put five in double figures, including 16 from Keljin Blevins, who had a series of dunks that ignited a crowd of 3,140.
The Bobcats got contributions up and down the lineup, which they’ll need against next Saturday when perennial Big Sky contender Montana visits for the first of two rivalry matchups in the regular season.
“I think we all know how big that game is,” Frey said. “But then again, it’s another game. It’s the next game now, so now it’s important. But this was a big win for us, giving us some momentum, stopping that losing streak, and I think that’s big for us going into next week for sure.”