BOISE, Idaho — Tyler Hall stepped to the free throw line with 4.6 seconds left intent on putting away bothersome Idaho and ending Montana State’s decade-long run of postseason futility.
As the Vandals had crawled back from a 15-point second-half deficit, Hall had already missed the front end of a one-and-one on MSU previous possession. But he made amends by promptly stealing the ball at half court, absorbed another foul and earned a reprieve at the charity stripe.
First shot: good. Second shot: perfect.
Those free throws made a huge difference in the Bobcats’ difficult yet satisfying 75-71 first-round Big Sky Conference tournament win over Idaho, a victory that served as their first postseason triumph since the 2008-09 season.
“There was no way I was going to miss those after I missed the first one. I was telling myself that the whole time,” Hall said during a postgame press conference. “I had to make up for it because I was very upset with myself.”
Hall finished with game highs of 23 points and 10 rebounds to drag the Bobcats out from under a terrible start and rescue them from another first-round embarrassment. It was just last season that MSU saw a 19-point second-half lead evaporate in an opening-round loss to North Dakota in Reno, Nevada.
Until Wednesday, MSU had dropped eight consecutive Big Sky tourney openers.
“We’ve been together for so long and we feel like we’ve come up short at the tournament a couple times,” said guard Harald Frey, who posted 17 points and eight assists.
“We just came together and said, ‘It’s not happening. We’re winning this game and we’re moving on.’ I think we just kind of willed that win out. It wasn’t pretty but it doesn’t matter.”
The Bobcats trailed 10-0 early, then were down 20-10 midway through the first half as Idaho freshman Cameron Tyson made four 3s. Hall and Frey finally started hitting their perimeter shots over the Vandals’ zone defense, and MSU cobbled together a 22-10 first-half run to take a two-point lead at intermission.
It continued in the second half, and the Bobcats were in command up by 15 by the time Devin Kirby hit a pair of free throws with less than 13 minutes to go. Sam Neumann and Keljin Blevins made key 3-point shots along the way.
But Idaho didn’t surrender. Trevon Allen had 19 of his 21 points in the second half, willing the Vandals back into it. His shot over the outstretched Hall with 31 seconds left pared MSU’s lead to 73-71.
Still, the Bobcats never wilted.
“They played incredibly hard, certainly set a tone out of the gate with a 10-0 lead,” said Brian Fish, who won his first postseason game as MSU’s coach. “But I really appreciate our guys understanding, and we’ve talked a lot the last two or three days about making it a 40-minute game.
“Coming in here, this group here has dropped a couple games in the tournament (on) opening night where we’ve gotten off to fantastic starts and didn’t quite understand it was a 40-minute game. Today they understood it. They kept playing. Didn’t see panic in them. And we were able to make the plays to get the win.”
While Hall and Frey carried the banner for the Bobcats, Blevins, Kirby and Neumann all played big roles in the second half. That trio combined for 23 points after halftime.
Guards Lassi Nikkarinen and Russell Daniels also did their part to make up for the loss of 3-point specialist Ladan Ricketts, who is out with a calf injury.
“Our defense in the first five minutes of that game, we were just not active,” Fish said. “Our hands weren’t active and Tyson got four 3s down right away and kind of got our attention and we needed to pick it up a little bit.
“I thought Lassi and Russell gave us really good minutes. The ball moved. They’re stepping into a different role and I thought they handled it very well.
“Early on (Hall and Frey) made some shots while we had kind of a wide-eyed look to us a little bit. The veterans, at the end of the day, solved the problems, and then that allowed the rest of us to get going.”
The sixth-seeded Bobcats (15-16) advanced to play No. 3 seed Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals on Thursday at 8 p.m. MSU split its two regular-season meetings with the Eagles.
Idaho ended the year 5-27, which ties the school mark for most single-season losses.
“Always tough when it comes to an end,” Vandals coach Don Verlin said. “Our guys came out with a lot of energy. Three or four weeks ago when we got down 15 we would have quit. And we didn’t.
“We fought like crazy and had a chance to steal one here against a good Montana State team.”
NOTES: Hall, the Big Sky’s all-time leading scorer, is now up to 2,498 career points and is on the verge of joining the exclusive 2,500-point club. Before this season only 66 players in Division I history had reached that mark. … Hall has now made 426 career 3s, 10th-most all-time.