MSU Hoops v. Rocky Mtn.

Montana State sophomore Jubrile Belo struggles against Rocky Mountain’s Josh Eckmann and Christian Beeke for the rebound on Nov. 9.

All road trip, until the final seven minutes Tuesday, Montana State excelled defensively. The Bobcats kept opponents out of the paint, forced tough shots and capitalized with three wins in three days.

But in the fourth game in five days, the Bobcats tired late. Grand Canyon scored 19 straight points in a stretch that lasted from 6 minutes, 27 seconds remaining until 1:17 was left.

The Antelopes flipped a six-point deficit into a 13-point lead. They were the ones who forced turnovers late, made three 3s and hit eight free throws.

“It kind of snowballed on us,” Bobcats head coach Danny Sprinkle said.

MSU (4-2) fell short 69-56 at Grand Canyon to cap the road trip at 3-1. The Bobcats held the Antelopes to 37% from the field and won the rebounding battle 34-32. But MSU committed 17 turnovers, which GCU scored 21 points off, and was outscored 18-8 on free throws.

Two weeks since the start of the regular season, the Bobcats are already more than halfway through their nonconference schedule. For the sixth time in six games, MSU’s opponent shot less than 40%. Last season, the Bobcats held an opponent under that mark only once.

“I thought we defended well enough to win,” Sprinkle said. “But we had 17 turnovers which led to 21 points for them. That’s not a recipe for winning basketball on the road.”

MSU led by two points at halftime, but the Antelopes responded by taking a five-point lead five minutes in. Then the Bobcats switched from man-to-man to zone defense. It slowed GCU’s offense and allowed MSU to surge back in front.

“It kept us in the game. Our guys did a really good job rebounding out of it,” Sprinkle said of the zone. “They were shooting jump shots, which is what we wanted.”

Harald Frey hit a shot on a crossover dribble and then nailed a stepback 3-pointer. As he backpedaled on defense, he looked toward his teammates on the bench who stood up and pointed at him. A defensive rebound then led to Jubrile Belo fighting through a double team on the low block and scoring a layup. The Bobcats led by six with seven minutes to play.

Then the game unraveled.

The defensive scheme change only worked temporarily. The Antelopes found a rhythm. Carlos Johnson hit two 3s to put GCU up four. Then Belo was called for a foul, his fourth, going for a rebound off a Ladan Ricketts missed 3. The referees reviewed the play and stuck with the call. Two more free throws for the Antelopes bumped it to a 60-54 game, and MSU never recovered.

The Bobcats committed four turnovers during the run. Belo, who finished with a team-high 17 points, caught an inbounds pass with two seconds left on the shot clock and didn’t shoot in time. Frey, who helped carry the Bobcats the first three games of the road trip, threw an entry pass into the post that was intercepted and also lost the ball in the paint.

For the fourth straight game, MSU relied on its top seven players. Only two bench players, Ricketts and Zeke Quinlan, played more than five minutes for the Bobcats. For the fourth straight game, Frey played at least 37 minutes. Amin Adamu played 36. Devin Kirby played 31, his fourth straight game playing at least that many.

But Sprinkle wanted to roll with the group he’d played so often because he wanted multiple ball handlers on the court and a lineup that could match up with GCU.

“That’s our best lineup against athletic and strong teams like that,” Sprinkle said. “I was proud of our guys. They logged a lot of minutes this weekend.”

Down the stretch, after MSU had clamped down and rose to the occasion in prior games, the Bobcats did the opposite Tuesday.

“To go into that environment and have a chance to win with five minutes to go,” Sprinkle said, “was positive for us.”

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