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Surging Montana State men back in Big Sky title game for fourth straight year

Sam Lecholat
Posted at 9:39 PM, Mar 12, 2024

BOISE, Idaho — Montana State is back in familiar territory — the Big Sky Conference tournament championship game.

The Bobcats on Wednesday will play for a berth in the NCAA tournament after edging Sacramento State 74-71 Tuesday night in the semifinal round of the Big Sky tourney, marking the fourth consecutive season in which they'll appear in the title contest.

Fifth-seeded MSU, the two time reigning tournament champion, led by double digits on more than one occasion — including a 14-point advantage at the 6:05 mark of the first half — but had to weather separate Sac State runs in order to advance.

In Matt Logie's first season as head coach, the Bobcats are championship bound. They will play archrival Montana for the Big Sky crown in just the second title-game matchup between the longstanding programs.

MSU has now won eight straight league tournament games.

"There's kind of a subtlety to winning championships, and it's culture related," said Logie, who came to MSU from Division II Point Loma (Calif.). "I was fortunate to take over a program that had a strong culture, and our staff has a tremendous amount of experience in these types of moments and situations.

"I think we felt very confident all year long that we can just stick to the process and keep growing, and by the time we get to this week we play our best basketball. And our best basketball is good enough."

It's hard to argue with Logie's logic; the Bobcats, who had just 14 wins entering the tournament, are peaking at the perfect time. They needed to be at their best against Sacramento State, especially late.

A dunk by John Olmstead with 11:21 remaining gave MSU a comfortable 63-52 lead. But the Hornets chipped at their deficit and eventually trimmed it to two, 67-65, on a driving layup by Emil Skytta with 4:37 left.

Austin Patterson's layup with 19 seconds left cut the MSU lead to 72-71, but Jed Miller hit two key foul shots with 13 ticks on the clock to extend the advantage. The Hornets' final attempt to tie the game, a 3 by Zee Hamoda, missed with seven seconds left and the Cats held on.

A night after they hit 13 total 3-pointers and scored 66 second-half points in a quarterfinal win over Weber State, the Bobcats netted 11 more from behid the arc against Sac State. Robert Ford III made 4 of 7 and finished with a team-high 19 points.

But Ford had a lot of help. Sam Lecholat had a double double with 13 points and 11 rebounds, and Brandon Walker scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting in just 16 minutes.

Ford, Lecholat and Brian Goracke were also clutch on defense. Ford finished with four steals, giving him a total of 95 this year, a new MSU single-season record and the second most in Division I. Lecholat and Goracke combined for five of the Bobcats' seven blocked shots. Lecholat had two blocked shots at the rim late in the second half.

Of setting the steals record, Ford said, "We talked about it a little bit on the way up (to the postgame press conference). I just kind of said that it's just another day. Just focusing on (Wednesday). But it was a good thing."

What Logie has done in his first season with an MSU team that lost so much from last season — including head coach Danny Sprinkle and stars RaeQuan Battle, Darius Brown II and Great Osobor — shouldn't be discounted.

Lecholat, one of the guys that stuck around in the wake of Sprinkle's departure after last year, said he continued to have faith, especially when Logie came on board.

"I had no doubt," Lecholat said. "Just from that first coaching interview, I knew that (Logie) was the guy for us. What he's done for this team, he's led us tremendously."

Montana State is now 16-17 overall but has won three consecutive games and five of its past seven, and will try to punch a ticket to the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season with a win in the conference title game Wednesday night.