MSU v NAU mens hoops

Montana State junior Mychael Paulo drives the ball Monday against Northern Arizona at Worthington Arena.

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First it was a blocked Amin Adamu layup, then it was a missed Zeke Quinlan layup and then it was Harald Frey missing the front end of one-and-one free throws.

As Montana State’s offensive woes piled up, Southern Utah stormed back. The Bobcats’ 10-point, second-half lead evaporated. The Thunderbirds scored 12 straight. They never trailed again.

For a span of 5 minutes, 54 seconds, MSU missed eight shots and didn’t score.

“Right there,” MSU head coach Danny Sprinkle said of where the game was lost.

Frey and Jubrile Belo each had layups blocked, too. Borja Fernandez missed a 3-pointer, his sixth miss of the game. The Bobcats’ offense sputtered.

SUU took advantage and secured a 59-53 win Saturday in Cedar City, Utah. MSU (8-7, 2-2 Big Sky) made 27% of its shots, was outrebounded 21-15 in the second half and lost for the first time this season when allowing less than 60 points.

When the Big Sky schedule began, the Bobcats beat Sacramento State by 15 points, a blowout by conference play standards. MSU led by nine at halftime in that game and maintained a comfortable lead. But when a similar situation arose in the second half Saturday, the Bobcats collapsed.

“Credit to Southern Utah,” Sprinkle said. “They made the plays when it mattered at the end.”

Through four conference games, the Bobcats’ identity is more than clear. They want to win on the defensive end. They did enough Saturday to earn a victory by allowing just 59 points.

Most of MSU’s offensive struggles up to this point had been related to turnovers. The Bobcats committed nine, a season low, on Saturday.

When they maintained possessions in their previous 14 games, they made 47% of their field goals, ranking 61st in the country.

Saturday’s game told a different story. The Bobcats’ 53 points were their second-lowest total of the season and their 16 made shots were their fewest.

“We got pretty good shots,” Sprinkle said. “We missed a bunch of layups again at the front of the rim. We had some good looks.”

Poor shooting marred the first half. Neither team found a rhythm. They opened the game combining to shoot 4 of 32 from the field.

The most demonstrative celebrations from either side came on the defensive end. Finn Fleute drew a charge and Ladan Ricketts helped him up and screamed while congratulating him. SUU’s Harrison Butler blocked a Fernandez 3-pointer and wagged his finger to emphasize the rejection.

Neither team led by more than four points. They were tied six times in the first 20 minutes. But in the final few minutes before halftime, Ricketts made a backdoor cut to score a layup and Fernandez knocked down two free throws. That gave MSU a 21-17 lead at the break and provided the only separation.

The Bobcats opened the second half with five free throws, and Frey hit a baseline jumper to create a 10-point cushion with 15 minutes left. This was their chance to pull away, like they did against Sacramento State.

But the performance wasn’t good enough to stay in front.

MSU allowed 42 second-half points as its offense couldn’t keep pace. SUU’s Dwayne Morgan backed down Ricketts and scored a layup. The Thunderbirds tied the game with nine minutes left by adding four more second-chance points.

After opening the season 4-1, the Bobcats have now lost six of their last nine Division I games. Saturday’s loss was reminiscent of a 69-56 loss at Grand Canyon on Nov. 19. MSU allowed the Antelopes to go on a 19-0 run in that contest to pull away. That game also came at the end of a stretch of four games in five days.

This time, the Bobcats were at the end of playing four games in eight days, the only time during the conference schedule they’ll endure such quick turnarounds. Following a nine-point loss Thursday at Northern Colorado, MSU failed to bounce back.

“Every game is going to be close,” Sprinkle said. “It’s going to come down to who’s making shots that night.”

It wasn’t for a lack of chances. MSU tied the game at 43 with 4:45 to go.

A Ricketts 3-pointer pulled the Bobcats within three with 82 seconds left. A steal and transition layup by Mychael Paulo made it a one-point game with 55 seconds left.

But the Thunderbirds ended MSU’s last gasp with a Maizen Fausett three-point play in the final minute.

“We just need a couple of those shots to fall,” Sprinkle said.

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.