This coming Saturday, Feb. 1, the Cat’s basketball teams boast their first of two opportunities to take on their rivals from across the divide. The Griz basketball teams host the women at 2 p.m. and the men at 7 p.m. Both squads have the week off to prepare, giving the teams some much-needed time to rest after a hectic beginning to conference play. This past week, both teams went a perfect 2-0, providing momentum entering the most important games of the regular season.
To start last week, the Cats knocked off perennial Big Sky Conference contender Weber State in Ogden for the first time since 2009. Senior guard Harald Frey, who is this week’s Cat Close-up, had a late assist to junior guard Amin Adumu with three seconds to play to stamp a bounce-back win for the Bobbies, 62-61. The Cats clawed back from a 13-point second-half deficit to finalize the gritty win over the Wildcats, who were desperate for a win after fighting early-season injury turmoil. The Cats are now 5-2 in one-possession games, and Head Coach Danny Sprinkle discussed this after the win, “We’re comfortable in those stressful situations. We’ve been practicing a lot of those situations. We’ll never be unprepared in the last minute of a game again.”
For the second game of the weekend, the Cats made a late-game run to pull away from Idaho State, 75-64. The two-game stretch saw the return of junior forward Devin Kirby after missing eight games, and his 6’11” frame provided some relief to sophomore forward Jubrile Belo in the paint. The two bigs were a force in the 75-64 victory over the Bengals. Belo and Kirby combined for 14 offensive rebounds, and Adamu along with the duo logged a combined 36 points in the paint, ultimately wearing out the Bengals. Despite the Cats only shooting 1-11 from three-point range, their stifling defense and offensive boards gave them a convincing victory to complete the road trip.
This Saturday, Feb. 1 at 7 p.m., the Cats, who are now 5-4 in conference play, will make the highly anticipated trip to the league-leading Griz, who are 7-2 in conference play despite dropping their last game at Weber State. The Griz have also been great in close games this year, a big factor in their early success in conference play. If the Cats hope to win, they will have to find a way to slow down preseason Big Sky Conference MVP senior guard Sayeed Pridgett, who is averaging 19.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. If the Cats can continue to rebound and play strong defense consistently, they will be in every game until the end. Judging by the plethora of one possession games in the Big Sky Conference so far, I would expect nothing different in this game. I anticipate a late surge will propel to the Cats to the first Cat-Griz victory in the Sprinkle era.
The women opened up the weekend with a runaway victory over the rehauled Weber State team, 81-52. The Cats outscored the Wildcats in each quarter and never let them gain any sort of momentum during the contest. Junior guard Tori Martell led the charge with 16 points, but, overall, it was another balanced offensive effort, with 10 women getting their name on the scoring sheet. After the win, MSU Head Coach Tricia Binford said, "We got better tonight defensively, and that's where we needed to turn the page. We had a lot more deflections than we did at Eastern Washington, and I thought we came out a lot more attack-minded on the defensive end, and I thought that set the tone for us right from the start."
In front of nearly 2,500 fans, the Cats capped the perfect weekend with a strong victory over Idaho State, 67-59. Six Bobcats finished the game with at least eight points, led by senior forward Fallyn Freije with 15 points and eight rebounds. The Cats, who are on a four-game winning streak, have made it clear that the team comes before any individual statistics. Binford recognized this by saying, “All season we've had different kids step up. We're a team that is never going to have a conference player of the week because of our unselfishness. And this game was no different. Everyone filled their role, and everyone contributed, and when you do that, you'll have success."
The Cats currently sit atop the Big Sky Conference at 8-1, while the Griz are in the middle of the pack at 5-4. Montana halted a three-game losing streak by beating Weber State last Saturday, Jan. 25, after starting conference play 4-1. The Lady Griz are led by senior guard Mckenzie Johnston, who averages 12.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. They have proven they can hang with anyone, as they blew a late lead in a one-point loss at Idaho, who sit at 6-1 in conference play and are the only team to beat the Cats in the conference. If the Cats can continue to roll with their team oriented mindset and find consistency on offense, they could pull away in this one. There are no easy games in Big Sky Conference play, and with the added pressure of the rivalry, expect an entertaining game. All Big Sky Conference games can be streamed on PlutoTV for free, so check out the 300th Cat/Griz matchup on Saturday, Feb. 1 at 2 p.m. Go Cats!