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Back to the Dance: Montana State pulls past Montana to punch third straight NCAA tourney ticket

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Posted at 6:58 AM, Mar 14, 2024

BOISE, Idaho — One mantra within the men's basketball program at Montana State is to play "avalanche basketball."

The thought, Bobcats coach Matt Logie said, is to create momentum that builds throughout a game and ultimately buries the opponent.

PHOTOS: MONTANA STATE DEFEATS RIVAL MONTANA FOR BIG SKY CONFERENCE BASKETBALL TITLE

Right now, the Bobcats themselves are one giant avalanche. No. 5 seed MSU went on a huge second half-run Wednesday night on the way to an 85-70 victory over third-seeded Montana in the championship game of the Big Sky Conference tournament to earn a berth in the NCAA tourney.

Montana State men's basketball celebration
Montana State coach Matt Logie holds up a piece of net after winning the Big Sky Conference men's basketball championship at Idaho Central Arena in Boise on March 14, 2024.

The win marks the third consecutive Big Sky title and the third straight NCAA tournament trip for the Bobcats and the first under Logie, who was hired at MSU last April to replace previous coach Danny Sprinkle.

"It just started to roll downhill and the momentum swung our way," Logie said after his team cut down the nets at Idaho Central Arena. "We were able to keep it going."

In its fourth straight trip to the Big Sky championship game, Montana State trailed by 11 points, 49-38, early in the second half but clawed back and eventually took the lead at 51-50 on a 3-pointer by Tyler Patterson with 12:23 remaining.

After that the Bobcats put together another burst, and when Patterson hit another 3 with 8:28 left the Cats led 62-53. A turnaround shot by Robert Ford III with 6:29 to go gave MSU a 14-point lead at 67-53.

During that stretch, the Grizzlies shot 0 for 8 from the floor. Eventually Montana State's lead grew to as much as 21 points with 2:13 left after a Brandon Walker putback.

The Bobcats became a second-half team throughout the tournament and Wednesday was no different. At one point MSU had outscored the Griz 41-9 after halftime.

"We got off to a slow start shooting and we just had to break through," said Patterson, who finished with 12 points. "In the second half we got on a run and that kind of shifted momentum. We knew we just had to keep the foot on the gas and we took it from there."

"We were trying to hold the line and once we started losing our grip on that ... yeah, they just made some big shots," said Montana's Aanen Moody.

Ford III had another uber-productive game for the Bobcats with 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists and five steals. He was named the tournament's MVP, adding to the Big Sky defensive player of the year award he won at the end of the regular season.

Montana State men's basketball celebration
Montana State guard Robert Ford III holds up a piece of net after the Bobcats won the Big Sky Conference men's basketball championship at Idaho Central Arena in Boise, Idaho, on March 14, 2024.

John Olmsted scored 16 points and had four dunks, including three on lobs near the basket. Brandon Walker chipped in 14 points and six rebounds for MSU.

The Grizzlies were led by Josh Vazquez's 20 points and four 3-pointers. Moody had 14 points but shot just 1 for 6 from the arc. Laolu Oke finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. Brandon Whitney scored 13 points, 12 of which came in the first half.

It was just the second matchup between Montana and Montana State in the championship game of the Big Sky tournament and the first since 1986, which was also won by MSU.

It was the 12th all-time tourney matchup between the rivals and the first since 2009. Each team won six times in those meetings.

The title-game matchup was unique in that it pitted Logie versus Montana coach Travis DeCuire. The duo has a relationship that goes back 30 years.

DeCuire was a player at Mercer Island High School in Washington when Logie's grandfather was the head coach. Logie was then a ball boy for the team.

Later, DeCuire was an assistant coach at Mercer Island when Logie was a player.

The win, Logie said, was in a sense bittersweet because he denied DeCuire a trip back to the Big Dance. The Grizzlies haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 2019.

In turn, DeCuire said he is happy for Logie.

"I think about losing the championship game," DeCuire said. "The rivalry doesn't matter too much to me. It's about relationships, to be honest with you. So I'm happy for him. If I can't go, I'd just as soon it be him."

Montana State men's basketball celebration
Montana coach Travis DeCuire congratulates a Montana State player after the Bobcats beat the Grizzlies 85-70 in the championship game of the Big Sky Conference tournament at Idaho Central Arena in Boise, Idaho, on March 14, 2024.

DeCuire confirmed after the game that — and 23-11 — the Grizzlies' season isn't over, that they will play in the College Basketball Invitational, which begins March 23.

The Bobcats, now at .500 with a 17-17 overall record, will learn their seeding and opponent for the upcoming NCAA tournament on Sunday. The tournament begins March 19-20 with the First Four. The first round is March 21-22.

"We're going to celebrate tonight," Logie said. "We'll turn the page tomorrow and on Sunday and then go from there."