Road games to determine playoff fate for MSU Billings men

(MSUB Athletics photo)

(MSUB Athletics release)

BILLINGS – In a tightly contested race to make the Great Northwest Athletic Conference tournament, the Montana State University Billings men’s basketball team has put themselves in good position to secure their own destiny but will be up against formidable opponents this week as they travel to play two of the league’s hottest teams. The Yellowjackets begin their final four games of the season facing Seattle Pacific University on Thursday, February 21 at 5:15 p.m. at Brougham Pavilion. A jaunt across town will then bring them to Marcus Pavilion to face No. 12 Saint Martin’s University Saturday, February 23 at 7 p.m.

“We’re heading into a very tough road trip with Seattle Pacific and Saint Martin’s, two of the top teams,” mentioned head coach Mick Durham. “We did compete very well against these two teams in Billings and split with them. I’m hoping that gives us confidence that we can do it again. This time of year is all about tough games and I’m excited to see how we can finish the last two weeks of the GNAC conference season.”

MSU Billings (13-11, 8-8 GNAC) is tied for fifth place in the standings with Alaska Anchorage (13-11, 8-8). They need to remain in the top six to make the postseason tournament held in Bellingham, Washington March 7-9. The ‘Jackets secured important wins at home last week against Simon Fraser (12-11, 6-9) and Western Washington (12-13, 6-9) and completed their first weekend conference sweep since December 1. Despite showing they are among the best teams at home this season, MSUB’s road struggles have brought them to a 1-6 record away from Billings.

GNAC Playoff Picture – Non-Clinched Teams (2/20/19)
Place Team GNAC Record Win % Games Remaining

4 Western Oregon 10-6 .625 4
5 Montana State Billings 8-8 .500 4
6 Alaska Anchorage 8-8 .500 4
T7 Simon Fraser 6-9 .400 5
T7 Western Washington 6-9 .400 5

If the Yellowjackets want to improve their position and potential seeding for the conference tournament, they will need to pass Western Oregon (17-8, 10-6) for fourth place. With four games left in the regular season, Seattle Pacific (16-6, 13-4) is already out of reach for third. On the flip side too many losses could see them slide back behind Simon Fraser and Western Washington and put them out of the playoff picture.

Balanced scoring has been a major reason for the success of the team this season. Tyler Green, Brendan Howard, Zack Rollins, Melvin Newbern Jr., and Zharon Richmond all average more than 10 points a game and the Yellowjackets rank fourth in scoring with 81.0 points as a team. MSUB is also the only team in the league with three players ranked in the top-10 for individual points per game. Green leads the way in the category at No. 5 with 16.6 points per contest.

The Yellowjackets have not reached the top of the other major statistical categories, but the team is balanced and capable in almost every facet. MSU Billings ranks seventh in points allowed to opponents (77.9 ppg), sixth in free throw percentage (.728), fourth in field goal percentage (.468), fourth in three-point percentage (.375), and seventh in 3-point defense (.364).

On defense, Newbern Jr. ranks second in the GNAC in rebounding with 8.4 boards per game, behind only Michael Kluting of Alaska Fairbanks (8.5 rpg). As a team, MSUB is fifth in offensive rebounds (10.0 rpg) and third in defensive rebounds (26.1).

Coach Durham has made the team’s assist to turnover ratio a focal point for improvement in his first season at the helm. Last year, the ‘Jackets finished with more turnovers than assists but have 372 assists and just 313 turnovers so far in 2018-19. Thursday night against Simon Fraser University, the ‘Jackets limited turnovers to just nine while forcing the Clan to commit 23. The Yellowjackets already have three more conference wins than in 2017-18 and have matched their season win total with four games still on the schedule.

LAST TIME OUT: The Yellowjackets staved off a late push to beat Western Washington 94-90 Saturday night at Alterowitz Gymnasium. Zack Rollins led MSUB with 22 points, six assists, and three rebounds while Howard and Green also scored 20 points apiece. Both teams ran into early foul trouble but MSUB’s key players managed to stay on the floor in the crucial minutes of the game, helping keep the team ahead on the scoreboard.

GREEN MACHINE: Other teams know Tyler Green is going to shoot but they still struggle to stop him from outside the arc. The junior is No. 8 among NCAA Division II players with 3.61 three-point field goals per game for MSUB. Green has 87 threes this season and is four away from tying teammate Zack Rollins, who had 91 a year ago, which ranks 14th in MSUB history for 3-pointers in a season. If Green can maintain his current .444 shooting percentage pace, he would rank ninth on the MSUB all-time list for 3-point percentage in a season. Green’s 188 attempts from long-range is tied for 22nd in Division II. Green is No. 1 in the GNAC for 3-point field goals made with an impressive 12 more made shots than second place EJ Boyce of Saint Martin’s.

NEWBERN JR. KEEPS REBOUNDING: Melvin Newbern Jr. continues to lead the conference with 69 offensive rebounds, despite missing two games due to injury in the beginning of February. The Minnesota native is also fourth in defensive boards and second in total rebounds (8.4 rpg), just behind Michael Kluting of Alaska Fairbanks (8.5 rpg). In his return to the lineup last week, Newbern Jr. came up with seven boards against Simon Fraser and three against Western Washington. He had a season high 16 rebounds against Northwest Nazarene on February 2.

ROLLINS MAKES PROGRESS: Senior Zack Rollins has followed his strong junior campaign as the leading Yellowjacket scorer with another impressive run in 2018-19. Rollins averaged 15.4 points last season and 14.0 points this season. He has distributed the basketball more often this year with 48 assists in 23 games and has already surpassed his 43 assist total as a junior, despite nine fewer games played. Rollins is one of three players to start every game and is playing 30.3 minutes per contest, up from 28.7 in 2017-18. Rollins earned GNAC player of the week from November 26-December 2 after posting a career high 30 points against Alaska Anchorage. He was named all-conference honorable mention in his first season with the team.

TERASHIMA EFFECT: With the healthy return of guard Tyler Green this season, one might have expected Kobe Terashima’s role to be significantly reduced. Instead, Terashima has embraced his role as one of the first players off the bench and provided an insurgence of energy and offense to MSUB’s five starters. In 23 games, the sophomore has amassed 71 points and 49 rebounds running the point. He posted a season high 13 points in 21 minutes against Simon Fraser on Thursday, shooting 11-for-11 from the free throw line.

Scouting Seattle Pacific University
Game Day: Thursday, February 21 – 5:15 p.m.
2018-19 Record: 15-6, 12-4 GNAC, 9-1 home, 6-3 away, 0-2 neutral
Form: W, W, W, W, W
Head Coach: Grant Leep (third season)
2017-18 Record: 17-12, 11-9, 7-5 home, 9-5 away, 1-2 neutral

The Falcons extended their winning streak to seven with a home win against No. 12 Saint Martin’s University Tuesday night 67-63. Nikhil Lizotte had a career high 26 points (6-for-13) and six three-pointers to lead SPU’s offense. SPU also outshot the Saint’s 38.8 percent (19 of 49) to 38.6 percent (22 of 57) in a largely defensive battle. The Falcons trailed by one point at halftime but made up the difference in the second, helped by Lizotte’s clutch three-point shooting.

Lizotte averages 12.8 points per game for SPU with 2.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He has scored 38 points over his last two games with the Falcons. Gavin Long has 21 starts at a 12.6 point clip with 3.6 rebounds and a .555 shooting percentage. Coleman Wooten (12.1 ppg, 8.0 rpg) leads the Falcons in rebounding and ranks third in the GNAC, just behind Newbern Jr. of MSUB. Harry Cavell (10.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg) and Nathan Streufert (8.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) round out the expected starting lineup for Seattle Pacific.

The Falcons excel in rebounds and rank No. 1 in the conference with 30.2 defensive boards per game. Averaging 7.5 more rebounds per game than their opponents, SPU is also No. 1 in rebounding margin.

Seattle Pacific is ranked last in turnover margin as they have committed 280 turnovers versus 239 turnovers forced by opponents. SPU scored 78.9 points per game (sixth) and allows opponents to score 70.7 (third).

The Yellowjackets dominated the Falcons 92-63 at home on January 26, outscoring SPU 55-24 in the first half. MSU Billings shot a season high 57-percent (36-for-63) from the floor and Howard led the team with 20 points (7-for-11) and three rebounds. The Yellowjackets held a 41 point lead early in the second half before Seattle Pacific cut the margin to 29 at the final buzzer.

MSU Billings is 7-19 all-time against Seattle Pacific with two wins in the last 10 meetings. The two teams last met in the GNAC tournament in 2011, with SPU taking down MSUB 79-59.

Scouting No. 12 Saint Martin’s University
Game Day: Saturday, February
2018-19 Record: 21-4, 14-3 GNAC, 11-1 home, 8-3 away, 2-0 neutral
Form: L, W, W, W, W
Head Coach: Alex Pribble (fourth season)
2017-18 Record: 25-8, 15-5 GNAC

The GNAC leading Saints were on a roll with wins over both Alaska schools, Concordia, and Western Oregon but had their four-game streak stopped Tuesday night at Seattle Pacific. Even so, SMU continues to hold down first place with a half-game lead over Northwest Nazarene in a bid for the regular season title.

The Saints have been ranked in the Division II top-25 all season and ascended to No. 12 in the latest NABC coaches poll released on Monday. Last season, the Saints lost the GNAC championship to Western Oregon 65-55, then bowed out to Western Oregon again in the NCAA West Region Tournament 77-55.

Senior guard EJ Boyce is averaging 13.2 points per game along with 2.1 rebounds and 44 assists. Boyce also holds a .829 free throw percentage, which ranks second on the team. Luke Chavez scored 11.8 points per contest with 2.7 rebounds and Chandler Redix checks in at 11.7 points and 3.4 rebounds. SMU’s starting five has been no secret this season with Boyce, Redix, Rhett Baerlocher, and Jordan Kitchen all starting the maximum 25 games for SMU so far.

Saint Martin’s scores 77.0 points per game (eighth) and surrenders 66.7 points to opponents (second). The Saints are stingy on defense and opposing teams have shot just .318 against them from the three-point line.

On January 24, the Yellowjackets pushed the Saint’s to the brink but fell victim to a late comeback leading to a 76-74 loss. MSUB led by as many as 18 in the first half and 13 in the second half but Saint Martin’s turned to playmakers Chavez, Boyce, and Redix down the stretch to come up with quick hitting three pointers which turned the tide.

Saint Martin’s shot 24-for-60 (40.0 percent) from the floor, 13-for-40 (32.5 percent) beyond the arc, and 15-for-21 (71.4 percent) at the free throw line. The Saints also grabbed 40 rebounds, compared to MSUB’s 34, along with nine assists on 11 turnovers, with four blocks and three steals.

MSUB has won 14 of 32 all-time meeting between the two clubs. The ‘Jackets are 2-8 over the last eight matchups and have lost three in a row dating back to 2017.

ENDING THE REGULAR SEASON: After facing Seattle Pacific and Saint Martin’s this week, the Yellowjackets take their final road trip of the year in the last week of February with games against Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska. MSUB notched victories over both far north schools in Billings at the end of November.

Scott Breen

Scott Breen

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