Coaches say this is the time of the season when teams are on the move — up or down.
It’s never good to be moving down in February, as UND was Thursday night at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.
A flat start — punctuated by mental errors, poor shooting and dismal rebounding — proved costly to UND as Montana State took a 78-70 Big Sky Conference win over North Dakota before 1,669 fans.
“We weren’t ready to play,” said UND coach Brian Jones. “We had no energy or focus of our game plan. They wanted it more than we did, especially early in the game. I’m really frustrated in our focus and urgency. It’s too late in the year not to be disciplined, focused and understanding what’s at stake.”
In a Big Sky race that has little or no difference between nine of the 11 league teams, home losses are unforgivable in the stretch run of the season.
UND dropped to 7-6 in the league and 10-13 overall, while Montana State improved to 7-6 and 12-12. Also, it was Montana State’s first win over UND in the Green and White’s Division I era.
UND had a chance to gain some separation as it came into the night tied for second place with three other teams. With seven games remaining — four at home — wins are now critical if UND wants to make the seven-team league postseason tournament.
“Right now, we’re fighting for our lives,” said Jones.
Montana State placed five players in double figures, led by Flavien Davis’ 19 points. His biggest points came with under eight minutes to play.
Montana State frustrated UND with its zone defense in bolting out to a 48-28 lead with 14:47 to go. The Bobcats also hurt UND with its early offensive rebounding and hit timely 3-pointers against a scrambling North Dakota defense.
UND, however, rallied. In a seven-minute stretch, UND cut the 20-point deficit to three (55-52) on a Cole Stefan basket with 7:56 to go.
Davies then came up big for Montana State. He scored six straight points, giving the Bobcats a 61-52 lead with 6:27 left.
“You knew they’d make a run,” said Montana State coach Brad Huse. “They showed their firepower during that stretch. But we did enough to hold them off.”
Besides Davies’ six-point spurt, the Bobcats were solid at the free-throw line in the closing minutes. Montana State went 28-for-32 from the line, compared to UND’s 7-for-15 showing. Davies was 10-for-12 at the line while Marcus Colbert (16 points) was 6-for-6.
UND’s inability to solve Montana State’s zone defense perhaps was the most frustrating part of the night. UND, with its athletic perimeter players, has seen considerable zone defenses in the league, including last week during the Green and White’s win at Idaho State.
“The concern coming in was that they just saw a zone last week at Idaho State,” said Huse, a former University of Jamestown coach. “Maybe they’d be more prepared for it.”
But UND struggled to find the open spots in the zone and shot 11-for-32 on 3-point attempts.
“We worked on a zone all week,” said Jones. “We diced a zone last week but we didn’t have any carryover from last week. Today, we just fell in love with the jump shot.”
Aaron Anderson led UND with 20 points; Troy Huff finished with 17 and Alonzo Traylor nine.
UND’s focus now turns to Montana, which lost in overtime Thursday night at Northern Colorado. The Griz, a perennial league power, also face a must-win situation as they dropped to 7-6.
“It’s a must-win game Saturday,” said Anderson. “We have to learn from this.”