BOISE — Tyler Hall and Harald Frey weren’t going to let Montana State lose on Wednesday.
Though the Bobcats trailed Idaho 10-0 and 20-10 in the first round of the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament at Century Link Arena, MSU’s star duo willed the team to its first tournament win since 2009.
“This is the last kind of go-around for us, been together for so long,” Frey said. “We felt like we had come up short in the tournament a couple times, so we just came together and said it’s not happening. We’re winning this game, we’re moving on. And I think we just willed that win out. It wasn’t pretty. If you win by one or you win by 30, it doesn’t matter. We’re moving onto the next game, so that’s kind of what willed us.”
The sixth-seeded Cats, who were playing without Ladan Ricketts, got off to an awful start as No. 11-seed Idaho shot out of the gate. Vandals guard Cameron Tyson made four quick 3-pointers, and MSU found itself in an early hole. Hall and Fray settled the team down, though, each scoring 12 points in the first half.
A Frey 3 at the 4:53 mark of the first half gave the Bobcats their first lead at 24-22, and they wouldn’t trail the rest of the way.
“Early on, (Hall and Frey) made some shots while we had kind of a wide-eyed and bushy-tailed look to us a little bit there, and they kept it close,” said MSU coach Brian Fish. “And then guys started to pick it up and we found our rhythm. The veterans, at the end of the day, solved the problems, and then that allowed the rest of us to get going.”
Taking a 32-30 lead into the second half, the Cats caught fire. They quickly grew the lead to 10 at 48-38 and ballooned it to 15 at 57-42 less than eight minutes into the second half as guys not named Tyler Hall and Harald Frey starting to fill the scoring column.
Devin Kirby had six points in the run, including a thunderous two-handed dunk off an alley-oop pass from Frey, and Keljin Blevins and Sam Neumann each had five. Neumann was 4 for 4 in the game, and hit a 3 to beat the shot clock.
“I thought (Kirby) and Keljin, we bit them a little bit at halftime, and they responded, and they gave us an inside presence. And we got that pick-and-roll and dunk for (Kirby) off that play and Keljin got that run-out basket and knocked a couple 3s down,” Fish said. “All that was off our defense, we were getting in transition and getting going.”
As dominant as Montana State was in the first eight minutes of the first half, the Bobcats let Idaho back in it over the remainder of the game. A Trevon Allen 3 brought the Vandals within 68-63 with 5:16 to play and he hit another jumper to get his team within 73-71 with 31 seconds left.
Frey and Hall both missed the front ends of one-and-one free throws to give Idaho life. The Vandals couldn’t capitalize, though, giving Hall the opportunity to seal the game. The senior from Rock Island, Ill. stole the ball from Allen to get back to the free throw line. His two shots were pure this time, and Montana State escaped with the 75-71 win.
“There was just no way I was going to miss those, or that one after I missed the first one. I just was telling myself that the entire time,” Hall said. “I had to make up for it, because I was very upset with myself. I just didn’t show it.”
Hall finished with game-highs of 23 points and 10 rebounds, while Frey added 17 points and eight assists. Blevins and Kirby each had 10 points, and Neumann contributed nine. Allen led Idaho with 21 points, while Jared Rodriguez had 18 and Tyson had 17.
With the win, Montana State (15-16) advances to Thursday’s quarterfinal round, where it will meet third-seeded Eastern Washington at 8 p.m. MSU last won a Big Sky Conference tournament game in 2009 when it advanced to the championship game.
“Three years straight not getting a win was real tough, but this is a fun group to be around and play with,” Hall said. “Everybody was talking about before the game that’s not how we want to go out, and I’m looking forward to the next game.”