BOISE, Idaho — Danny Sprinkle has coached his team into the Big Sky Conference Tournament semifinals in three consecutive seasons, and he’s seen objectively incredible games each time.
In 2021, Montana State, the No. 5 seed, pushed past top-seeded Southern Utah by three points. Last season, the No. 1 seed Bobcats outlasted fourth-seeded Weber State by the same margin. Neither game — and potentially no other game in his coaching career — measures up to Tuesday’s 60-58 semifinal win in double overtime against the Wildcats again at Idaho Central Arena.
“My goodness, I don’t think I can take any more of these semifinal games,” Sprinkle said. “I thought our team showed a tremendous amount of composure and toughness tonight.”
He said his team has a particular mindset that has helped it go 3-0 in those games.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 40, 50, 60, 70 minutes, we’re gonna keep coming,” he said. “We’re gonna keep competing.”
The Bobcats had chances at game-winning shots to end regulation and the first overtime, but they finally broke through with the go-ahead bucket on the third try.
MSU’s defense forced a shot clock violation with 13 seconds remaining in the game. On the Bobcats’ final possession, point guard Darius Brown II drove around Weber’s KJ Cunningham into the lane. As he did so, forward Jubrile Belo set a screen against Weber’s Junior Ballard, freeing teammate RaeQuan Battle from the right wing toward the hoop.
Battle received Brown’s pass in midair and flushed it with just over a second remaining to provide the final margin.
Sprinkle gave Battle credit for that play call.
“He’s gonna be a heck of a coach someday,” Sprinkle said.
After a review, 1.6 seconds remained. Weber inbounded the ball and quickly called a timeout to advance it. Then 0.8 seconds were left. The ball was inbounded to Steven Verplancken along the right sideline, but his long 3-pointer was blocked almost immediately by MSU’s Caleb Fuller.
And so ended the longest and lowest-scoring game of the Big Sky Tournament, played between the league’s two best defensive teams.
Montana State (24-9), the No. 2 seed, advanced to play in the Big Sky Championship game, set for 9:30 p.m. Wednesday against No. 9 seed Northern Arizona.
Montana State won against Northern Colorado in last year’s tournament title game, earning the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth in 26 years. The Bobcats are on the cusp of consecutive championships now.
MSU defeated the Lumberjacks 69-54 on Jan. 7 on the road and then won 69-68 on Feb. 2 at Worthington Arena, handing NAU one of its several one-point losses this season.
The Lumberjacks could have been seeded much higher in this tournament if not for that handful of narrow defeats. They’ve already won three games in Boise this week: against 10th-seeded Idaho on Saturday, against top-seeded Eastern Washington on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer on Sunday and against fourth-seeded Montana by 12 points earlier on Tuesday.
NAU will have Montana State’s full attention by the time the championship game tips off.
“They’re playing terrific right now,” Sprinkle said. “They’re connected. They’re confident. Everybody’s playing well.”
Offense was at a premium both ways for much of the later semifinal game and the teams finished with very similar shooting figures. MSU finished 18 of 52 (34.6%) and Weber was 20 of 58 (34.5%). They combined to force 32 turnovers, and MSU committed 23 fouls to Weber’s 21. The Bobcats shot 19 of 26 at the foul line, and the Wildcats were 15 of 19. The game featured 17 lead changes and 15 ties.
“We just had two teams that weren’t budging,” WSU sophomore guard Dillon Jones said. “They weren’t budging for us, and we definitely weren’t budging for them. That’s what you expect going into these tournament games.”
Weber (18-15) held a narrow 25-24 lead at halftime, and the teams were tied 48-48 at the end of regulation. The Wildcats had been leading 47-45, but a bucket inside from MSU’s Great Osobor tied it with 3 minutes, 26 seconds left. Osobor split a pair of free throws with 1:47 remaining for a one-point lead, and Jones tied it after also splitting two foul shots with 1:08 to play. After an MSU turnover and a missed shot from Weber State, Jubrile Belo missed a 3-pointer as time expired, forcing overtime.
MSU couldn’t take advantage of the Wildcats’ shooting woes down the stretch. WSU finished regulation with just one field goal in the final 13 minutes, going 1 of 13 in that stretch.
“We have good familiarity with their play calls and what they run, and likewise they have with us,” first-year Weber State head coach Eric Duft said. “There’s not a lot of secrets out there right now. When you play a team for a third time, it’s really about players stepping up and making plays. There’s no tricking each other. There’s very little of that.
“And you’ve got two teams that are well-schooled defensively. They play hard and have good plans. And this is what you get.”
The offense didn’t get better from there. Both teams scored just four points in the extra five minutes, so they went to a second overtime tied at 52. Brown missed a jumper as that first overtime expired.
MSU outscored Weber State 8-6 in the last five minutes. In addition to Battle’s dunk, he also had a 3-pointer in the second overtime.
“We prepare for games like this,” said Battle, who finished with a team-high 17 points with the help of three 3-pointers. “We do so many last-second practices. ‘At the end, there’s two seconds on the clock.’ We practice that. It happened today and we were ready to execute.”
Osobor backed him up with 16 points to go with six rebounds before fouling out with 1:07 left in the first overtime. He was vital to MSU’s survival, as he scored eight of Montana State’s final 10 points in the second half. Belo’s two free throws were the only other points in that final 12:14.
He found great success in the post, in particular by posting up against Jones.
“I felt like if you put me on the block against a smaller defender, my job is easy. I’ve just got to go in and finish,” Osobor said. “Coach always tells me to stay aggressive. Tonight I felt like I could impose my will on them.”
Belo finished with 12 points — all on free throws — with seven rebounds. Brown played almost the whole game, just 47 seconds shy of the full 50 minutes, and tallied four points, six assists and 11 rebounds. His performance paired well with Fuller’s three points and game-sealing block and Robert Ford III’s five points and six rebounds to give yet another example of how the team’s three biggest newcomers this year have contributed mightily to winning.
“They came in and they changed the game,” Osobor said. “When you have players that make plays, you’re in a great position.”
Brown was named the Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year last week and showed why he deserved it while shadowing Verplancken and Jones at different times throughout the game.
“He was phenomenal,” Sprinkle said, specifically against Verplancken he noted.
Verplancken had 10 points at halftime and finished with just 14. Jones shot 5 of 24 from the field and 8 of 11 from the foul line on his way to 18 points with 16 rebounds while playing all 50 minutes.
MSU’s offense went cold for several stretches, just as Weber’s did, but the Bobcats have shown over and over again this year they’re able to win with defense and free throws.
“Coach always talks to us about being together,” Osobor said. “I feel like we’ve been preparing for this moment for the longest time. Job’s not done. We’re still ready to go tomorrow.”
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