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Montana State sees big lead slip away in First Four loss to Grambling State in NCAA tournament

Brandon Walker
Posted at 7:08 PM, Mar 20, 2024

DAYTON, Ohio — Montana State was in prime position to win its first-ever NCAA tournament game Wednesday at University of Dayton Arena.

But a second-half surge by Grambling State carried into overtime and put a quick end to the Bobcats' stay at the Big Dance.

Jimel Cofer came off the bench to score 19 points and both Jourdan Smith and Antwan Burnett each had 18 as Grambling State handed fellow No. 16 seed MSU an 88-81 OT loss in a First Four matchup.

With the victory, the Tigers won their first NCAA tourney game in their first-ever appearance and advanced to play No. 1 seed Purdue in a first-round game Friday at 5:25 p.m. in Indianapolis.

In overtime, a 3-pointer by MSU's Robet Ford III tied the game 78-78 with 1:55 left. Burnett connected on bonus free throws at the 1:43 mark and Grambling State jumped back ahead by two.

After Brian Goracke missed a 3, Smith had a follow-up dunk to extend the Tigers' lead to 82-78 with 43 seconds left. Goracke then missed another 3-point try, and Smith hit bonus foul shots for a six-point Grambling State advantage.

From there, the Bobcats were unable to come back.

Not long before that, Montana State appeared poised to run away with the game.

Brandon Walker
Montana State's Brandon Walker, right, is defended by Grambling State forward Jonathan Aku during a First Four game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament on Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in Dayton, Ohio.

MSU, in its third straight NCAA tourney appearance, built a big advantage early in the second half. Walker made two layups within the first three minutes after the break, then Goracke buried a deep 3 at the 14:40 mark to give the Bobcats their biggest lead at 53-39.

But Grambling State, champions of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, didn't whither. The Tigers went on an 11-0 run to pull within 53-30 with 10:29 left following a three-point play by Mikale Stevenson.

Ford hit two much-needed 3s for MSU, the last with 8:20 left, to give the Cats a 59-51 cushion, yet the Tigers continued their surge. Cofer's up-and-under layup gave GSU its first lead since the first half at 60-59 with 5:50 to go.

Cofer was a big spark off the bench for the Tigers, scoring all 19 of his points after halftime.

A Smith 3 put Grambling ahead 65-61 with 3:59 on the clock, but Ford followed with a tough layup, was fouled, and made the subsequent free throw to pull the Bobcats within 65-64.

With the game tied 72-72, MSU's Brandon Walker missed inside with 11 seconds left. Grambling corralled the rebound and called timeout with six seconds to play. Tra'Michael Moton misfired at the buzzer and the game went to OT.

Matt Logie
Montana State coach Matt Logie shouts during a First Four game against Grambling State in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament on Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in Dayton, Ohio.

Walker led MSU's efforts early in the first half, scoring eight of the team's first 10 points. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound UT-Arlington transfer showed his versatility and skill while driving against Grambling State's defense and finishing at the basket on more than one occasion.

The Bobcats took an 18-9 lead at the 12:57 mark of the first half on a 3 by Ford, but Ford later picked up his second foul and had to sit a large portion of the final 10 minutes of the half.

During that time Grambling State took the lead at 29-27 when Burnett hit a 3-pointer. But the Cats closed the half on a 15-4 run as Tyler Patterson, Sam Lecholat and Goracke all drilled 3s in the final four minutes to grab a 42-33 advantage at the break.

A jumper by Smith at the buzzer before halftime proved crucial for Grambling State.

Ford finished with 26 points, six rebounds and four assists to lead the Bobcats. Goracke had 14 points with four 3-pointers. Walker added 14 points and six rebounds while Olmsted came off the bench to score 10 points.

Montana State ended its season with a 17-18 record. Grambling State improved to 21-14.

The Big Sky Conference is still seeking its first NCAA tournament victory since 2006, when Montana, as a No. 12 seed, beat No. 5 Nevada in a first-round game in Salt Lake City.