Of the teams entering Saturday’s matchups between Montana State and Montana in Missoula, only the Bobcat squads have winning records. And only the MSU women are on a winning streak.
But records and recent results matter very little in this rivalry. The Bobcats know that well.
Last season, the meeting in Missoula came in late February. Entering those games, the MSU women had won three of their last four and the MSU men had won 12 of their last 13 — a stretch that included an 11-game win streak that was the second-longest in the program’s Division I era.
The women went on to lose by 14 and the men lost by six in a game that was actually far more lopsided than the final score indicated. On Saturday, the women will face off at 2 p.m. and the men will play at 7 p.m.
Memories of last year’s defeat are still pinging around in some players’ heads.
“At this time last year we were on a big roll (going into Missoula),” MSU sophomore forward Great Osobor said. “We were winning a lot of games, and we went there and they were ready to play and we weren’t. We learned from our mistakes. We can’t go back there and be flat. We’ve got to be the aggressors.”
That is especially true considering the men’s team is coming off a four-point loss at Idaho on Monday. In that game, head coach Danny Sprinkle described his team’s energy at the start as zombie-like, and the Bobcats could never get back ahead.
“Nobody cares that it was our third game in five days,” Sprinkle said. “And we had to travel, (but) it don’t matter. It’s that time of year. You got to show up and play. It took us nine minutes to even wake up.”
It is still somewhat early in the Big Sky season, but the Bobcats (12-8, 5-2) cannot afford a repeat of that performance as they battle the Griz (9-10, 3-4) for positioning in the league standings.
Sprinkle said the team has to get back to “being us.”
“Watching that (Idaho) film, that wasn’t us,” he said. “We were two steps slow, not just one step, but we were two steps slow, and we hadn’t been like that for a while. Montana is going to play their best game of the year. They always do against us. And we’ve got to be ready for that.”
Same as last year, that means being mindful of 6-foot-10 junior forward Josh Bannan, UM’s leading scorer (16.3) and rebounder (8.6).
“He’s one of the best players in the league,” Sprinkle said. “He can play on the perimeter. They bring him off ball screens. (He’s) very similar to Dillon Jones from Weber, but he’s three inches taller.”
The Bobcats will also have to find ways to defend 6-3 guard Aanen Moody, a Southern Utah transfer averaging 13.9 points per game, and 6-9 forward Dischon Thomas, a Colorado State transfer averaging 12.3 points per game. Lonnell Martin Jr. is averaging 6.8 points per game this season, but scored 12 against MSU in last season’s Missoula matchup.
“You’ve got to be able to guard your man and box out and play sound defense,” Sprinkle said.
That’s worthwhile advice for the MSU women’s team as well. The Bobcats will have to contend against a Griz team with four players averaging double-digit points: Carmen Gfeller (13.8), Sammy Fatkin (12.9), Gina Marxen (11.0) and Libby Stump (10.1, off the bench).
In the Missoula game last season between the teams, Gfeller scored a career-high 34 points.
The Bobcats (12-7, 5-2) are winners of three straight games and have allowed an average of 62.3 points in those games. They’ll need another strong defensive effort on Saturday.
“Offensively, they put a lot of numbers on the board,” Bobcats head coach Tricia Binford said. “It starts in transition. They’re really fast in transition. Their post players can stretch the floor, they can play around the rim. Post play is really efficient, but the guard play has really, really high-level penetrators.
“I think they’re going to stretch the floor on us and challenge us to guard, and we’re going to have to do a great job there in Dahlberg (Arena) of really communicating and moving at the same time defensively.”
The Griz (8-10, 4-3) have been inconsistent in league play this season. They began with an 11-point win at Eastern Washington on Dec. 29 and most recently lost to the Eagles by 27 at home on Monday. Montana has lost consecutive games to Idaho and Northern Arizona — teams on opposite ends of the Big Sky spectrum. And the Griz struggled to narrowly beat the league’s last-place team Weber State in overtime on Jan. 12 only to come back two days later and erase an 11-point deficit in the second half to win at Idaho State.
Entering this rivalry matchup, though, those results cannot be considered too much. The only thing that matters is the next game.
“On the offensive end, it’s going to be super loud. That’s never changed there,” Binford said of Dahlberg Arena. “It’s a really fun atmosphere. It’s going to be a battle like always, and our kids are going to have to be ready to go for 40 minutes. We’re going to have to be really sharp.”
The game only counts as one win or one loss, but the result can also mean so much more.
“It’s a big thing, obviously, it’s the other team in the state. It’s bragging rights, you know?” Osobor said. “We want to say we’re the best team in the state. They want to say they’re the best team in the state. For me, I’m just a competitor. I just want to win, especially when someone wants to claim, ‘We own the state.’ Nah, I feel like we’re the best team in the state, and I just want to go out there and prove it.”
Hughes, Ranson leave MSU women’s team
The Montana State women’s basketball team has been without forward Mia Hughes and guard Ava Ranson since the end of winter break after both players decided to leave the program.
Binford said both players left the team on their own accord and added that Ranson, a junior, and Hughes, a sophomore who was “super far ahead academically” after entering with a lot of AP credits, will complete their degrees from MSU in the spring.
Binford was unsure if either player intends to transfer and use their remaining eligibility elsewhere.
“We wanted to support them the right way,” Binford said. “Two great kids. I’m really, really proud of them for finishing here at Montana State and getting their degrees.”
Hughes, who came to MSU from Woodinville, Washington, played in three games this season. She scored six total points in 13 minutes. As a freshman last season, she played in 16 games, including three starts.
Ranson, a Boise, Idaho, native, played 10 total minutes in two games, scoring just two points this year. In her freshman and sophomore years, she played in 23 and 29 games, respectively, and averaged more than nine minutes per game.
Though neither player saw much time on the court this season, the loss of two players cuts into the team’s depth. Binford said there hasn’t been any discussion about pulling the redshirt from New Mexico transfer Brooke Berry for the sake of adding another available player. Berry only joined the team on Monday.
Keeping that redshirt year in place preserves four full seasons for Berry going forward.
“I think it’s a win-win for everybody,” Binford said of Berry’s situation. “It allows her to get used to the system. We are going to start traveling Brooke. I think that will be really good for her and also it will be really good for the team. She’ll get a chance to see a lot of the conference places and just get familiar with our opponents. We’re taking her this weekend (to Missoula). Her first practice (was Wednesday). Obviously super excited to have her on the bench and in practices.”