Montana State men lock up outright title, top seed in Big Sky tournament

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Posted at 7:56 AM, Mar 04, 2022

(Editor's note: Montana State press release)

BOZEMAN—Things are darkest just before dawn, it's often said, and dawn came with just under 15 minutes to play in Montana State's 75-69 win over Sacramento State in Bozeman on Thursday. The victory clinched the Bobcats' outright 2022 Big Sky Conference regular season championship.

The outcome never seemed predetermined, as Bobcat coach Danny Sprinkle said in the brief time leading up to the game. "They have talented players and are playing well as a team," he said after his squad's 23rd win of the season, the most in Montana State's Division I era.

MSU snapped the Hornets' three-game winning streak on Thursday, but it took a second-half spark. "In the second half we got our second wind," Sprinkle said. "I thought Xavier (Bishop) started it, he was aggressive and got us going, and RaeQuan (Battle), his minutes were gigantic."

Bishop scored 18 points and dished out seven assists while turning it over only twice. Battle scored 17 points, leading Montana State's brilliant bench, and Great Osobor scored nine points and grabbed 12 rebounds.

And much of it started five-and-a-half minutes into the second half, with Sacramento State leading 46-40 after a William Fitzpatrick three-pointer, when Bishop hit a three-pointer. Then he converted a Hornets turnover into a fast break layup and hit the and-one free throw to tie the score.

Bishop wasn't done. He made a layup on a fast break to give the Cats a 48-46 lead, and after the Hornets scored, Bishop hit a three-pointer to cap his personal 8-0 run. The senior point guard either scored or assisted on nine of the team's 14 field goals in the second half and on 14 of MSU's 26 baskets on the night.

"He completely found another gear," Sprinkle said of Bishop. "He was tremendous."

While Montana State's starting lineup eventually pushed the team to the finish line, it was the Bobcat bench that provided necessary firepower. The MSU reserves scored 33 points and accounted for 13 rebounds and three steals. Sprinkle said the offensive spark was crucial. "Thank goodness for them, because there's been a big old lid on the rim. And the funny thing is, we've been getting good looks."

After Bishop's triple at 12:29, Osobor scored on a putback to increase MSU's lead to 53-48. After two Zach Chappell free throws Bobcat sharpshooter Nick Gazelas was fouled on a three-pointer and drained all free throws. He then scored on a layup to extend MSU's lead to 58-50. The Bobcat lead stayed between five and eight, but Bryce Fowler's turnaround jumper with 3:02 to play drew the Hornets within 65-62.

On the next possession Amin Adamu hit a three-pointer at 2:37 to play, and then Bishop made a layup to all but end the game. The Cats made five of their six free throws in the final two minutes.

In front of a noisy crowd and a raucous student section, the Bobcats grabbed the program's fifth outright Big Sky regular season championship. MSU also won for the 23rd time this season, the most by a Montana State team since Brick Breeden's 1950-51 team finished 24-12. In fact, Sprinkle joined Breeden as the only Bobcats to lead the school to a conference championship as both a player and head coach.

Chappell's 22 points led all players, while Fitzpatrick and Fowler each added 15 for the Hornets. Belo (11), Adamu (11) and Battle (17) joined Bishop in double-digits. Osobor's dozen rebounds led all players, while Abdul Mohamed snagged nine for the Cats.

Montana State wraps up the regular season on Saturday at 4 p.m. hosting Northern Colorado. The Bears beat Montana on Thursday and are tied for second in the Big Sky with Weber State and Southern Utah at 13-6.