Montana State 6-foot guard Robert Ford III came up with the ball and got fouled as he tried to dribble precious time off the clock. Ford sank both free throws to all but destroy Eastern Washington’s comeback hopes.
Ford helped the Bobcats earn a regular season-ending 79-74 win on Monday night in Cheney, Washington. The game didn’t mean anything for the Big Sky Conference tournament seeds, but it meant plenty to MSU (22-9, 15-3 Big Sky), which will enter Boise, Idaho, as the tournament’s No. 2 seed.
The win at top-seeded EWU (22-9, 16-2) was the Bobcats’ fifth straight, and it guaranteed at least one win over every conference opponent this season. They avenged a 70-67 home loss to the Eagles on New Year’s Eve.
“Proud of how our team competed. I knew they would,” MSU head coach Danny Sprinkle said over the phone. “Great win against a really good team on the road.”
Ford finished with 12 points (2 of 5 on 3s, 6 of 7 on free throws), a game-high 10 rebounds and two steals. Sprinkle said Ford “has a knack for rebounding the basketball.” The redshirt junior averaged 10.1 rebounds per game in two seasons at Clackamas Community College and finished the 2020-21 season at Idaho State with 7.2 boards per game.
“He’s just a tough little dude,” Sprinkle said. “He had a bloody nose, bloody mouth, but that’s what he does. He competes. He fights.”
Darius Brown led the Cats with 18 points (7 of 9 from the field, 3 of 5 from 3) and four assists, and he added five rebounds. Jubrile Belo had 16 points (7 of 8 from the field) and five boards, and RaeQuan Battle scored 16 (6 of 15).
MSU shot 52.7% from the field, 36.8% (7 of 19) from 3 and 87.5% (14 of 16) from the line. EWU finished at 51.9%, 42.1% (8 of 19) and 80% (12 of 15), respectively.
“We still have so much room for improvement,” Sprinkle said. “We haven’t peaked. We haven’t maxed out like a lot of teams have. We still have some things we can clean up defensively. We’re going to learn a lot from the last seven minutes tonight.”
Other than the foul-battered Battle, every Cat played more than their average minutes, and MSU used its usual starting lineup.
“That’s our program. That’s what we’re built on. There was never a thought of load managing or holding guys out,” Sprinkle said, adding, “I don’t care if it’s in a parking lot. I don’t care if it’s in Cheney, Boise, it doesn’t matter. When you put that Montana State jersey on, you better be ready to fight.”
Both EWU and MSU earned first-round byes at the Big Sky tournament. The Cats will play in the quarterfinals Sunday against the winner of Saturday’s game between seventh-seeded Portland State and eighth-seeded Northern Colorado, both of whom MSU swept in the regular season. Tip-off for that Sunday game is scheduled for 8 p.m. Mountain Time.
Sprinkle hopes to play a rubber match with EWU.
“That means we’ll meet them in the championship,” he said.
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