While the women’s and men’s basketball regular season champions have already been decided, the most important goal is still on the line. As members of the Big Sky Conference, the hardwood Bobcats have only one shot at playing in the NCAA Division I tournament — winning the Big Sky Conference tournament. This year's trip to Boise, Idaho will feature different paths to the “Big Dance” for the men’s and women’s teams.
For the MSU women's team, winning the conference tournament and qualifying for the NCAA tournament is undoubtedly the expectation. After finishing the regular season with only one loss through conference play, the Bobcats were awarded the number one seed in the Big Sky tournament and a first-round bye before playing the lowest seeded remaining team in the bracket. Fans and experts both have little doubt that this year is Big Sky Head Coach of the Year Tricia Binford and the Bobcats’ time to sweep the conferences regular season and tournament crowns before representing the conference on the national stage. Rarely does a team with this much talent and depth come out of a conference the size of the Big Sky.
“We’ve said all along that this team was going to be special,” said Binford about this year’s group.
While the Big Sky Conference MVP, senior forward Fallyn Frieje, is obviously a standout athlete, MSU’s entire roster is full of players who would compete for similar accolades on most other squads. This year’s team is, for a lack of better words, loaded and ready to dazzle fans in Boise.
On Tuesday, March 11, MSU won its opening game of the women's tournament against Northern Colorado in a close contest, 67-62. Boise native and Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year guard Darian White led the blue and gold with 19 points and six rebounds including some crucial buckets and free throws late in the game. Though White was the Bobcat who stood out in this particular game, in typical fashion, the support of the team was vital. Freije finished the game with 15 points and 12 rebounds, Second Team All-conference senior guard Oliana Squires had 13 points and senior forward Blaire Braxton added 9 points off the bench.
The team followed up their quarterfinal win with a semifinal win over Northern Arizona, 76-71. With the Cats holding a 3-point lead with 14 seconds remaining, Braxton, who finished with 11 points and nine rebounds, sealed the game with a steal on the Lumberjacks inbound. White once again led the way by scoring 19 points. The Cats will move on to play Idaho in the championship on Friday, March 13 at 1 p.m. It should be a good test for the Cats, as the Vandals were the only team to take down the women this season in conference play. All Big Sky Conference games can be streamed for free on PlutoTV, so be sure to tune in and root on the women as they look to return to the Division I tournament for the first time since 2017.
For the MSU men’s team, this season has already provided enough turn around and optimism for it to be deemed a success. The Cats finished fifth in the conference standings during the regular season, earning a first round bye and trip to the quarterfinals, a place they have only been three times in the last 15 seasons. A win on Thursday, March 12 at 2:30 p.m. against fourth-seeded Portland State would give the Cats their first trip to the semifinals since 2009, a year they advanced to the finals. While this season’s success is already an impressive accomplishment for first-year Head Coach Danny Sprinkle and his staff, it is undoubtedly a situation the team will not settle with. Sprinkle, a newly inducted member of the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame, offers unique insight on reaching the “Big Dance,” having been a freshman guard on the last Bobcat team to win the conference tournament and qualify back in 1996. A native of Helena, Sprinkle was crowned MVP of that 1996 Big Sky tournament championship game after scoring 30 points, taking MSU to the Division I tournament. Now is his first opportunity to get MSU back to where he and this fanbase believes it belongs, the NCAA tournament.
“It’s been too long. Twenty-some-odd years, that’s too long at a program like this...” said Sprinkle in his emotional introductory speech last April. “That standard’s not coming down for anybody ... trust me.”
For both teams, the opportunity of a lifetime begins with the annual tournament in Boise. Nearly 500 miles away from the friendly confines of the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, MSU still expects to see familiarity from the blue-and-gold-clad fans who have traveled to support their university, community and state. Regardless of tournament outcome, these two programs have done an absolutely phenomenal job at finding balance between successes on and off the court. As fans of the basketball programs, we are immensely grateful to support athletes, coaches, employees and administrators that do such an incredible job representing our state’s flagship university. Good luck to the Bobcats both this week and wherever they end up afterward.