Big Sky tournament: Battle lob dunk puts Montana State over Weber State in 2OT
An old ball coach once called games like this “sluggin’ rats.”
Several after the contest deemed it a “street fight.”
Tuesday’s Big Sky tournament men’s basketball semifinal between No. 2 Montana State and No. 3 Weber State was an ugly game where both teams played rough and rowdy for 50 minutes. It was a game where every possession mattered — the largest margin all night was six points.
With the rematch of last year’s semifinal knotted 58-58 late in double overtime, Montana State finally went to a play it has used all year to find a boost in big moments.
MSU’s fifth-year point guard Darius Brown II got past WSU’s KJ Cunningham on the perimeter. His first step caused Dillon Jones to slide up defensively away from the hoop to hopefully stop the ball in the paint. Off the ball on the right wing, MSU big man Jubrile Belo set a backscreen on WSU’s Junior Ballard, freeing up athletic wing RaeQuan Battle for a baseline run at the rim.
With Jones stepping up to the ball, Brown’s ensuing lob to Battle was clean and open. Battle dunked home the alley-oop with 1.6 seconds left to lift Montana State to a 60-58 victory with the clock approaching midnight Tuesday night at Idaho Central Arena in Boise.
The Wildcats endured their second straight one-possession defeat to MSU in the tournament semifinals, ending a season that featured a remarkable turnaround with an 18-15 record.
“We had two teams that weren’t budging,” Jones said. “That’s what you expect going into tournament games. They’re experienced … both teams wanted to win really bad.”
Jones finished with 18 points, 16 rebounds and three steals while playing all 50 minutes for Weber State, shooting 5 of 24 from the field while picking up his 20th double-double of the season.
Steven Verplancken Jr. scored 14 points. Cunningham totaled nine points and seven rebounds, and Dyson Koehler added eight points.
For Montana State (24-9), Battle led the way with 17 points on 7-of-22 shooting. He hit a pair of important jump shots after regulation, going 35 minutes with fresh legs after sitting long stretches of regulation in foul trouble. Reserve big man Great Osobor scored 16 points, fouling out after 28 minutes.
Belo scored 12 points without making a field goal (he was 0 of 2, drawing fouls on most of his shot attempts) by going 12 of 16 at the foul line. Brown finished with four points, 11 rebounds and six assists.
“Every possession matters. You miss a shot, you’ve got to get another stop,” Verplancken said. “Everything matters … I missed two defensive assignments. Those little things in this game, it gets put in a microscope and gets bigger and bigger.”
Both teams went 8 or more minutes without a field goal down the stretch of regulation. That was due mostly to strong, all-out defensive efforts that also led players on both teams to take tough, forced shots.
After MSU got up 45-40, Jones ended a WSU scoring drought of 9:11 by dropping in a floater that gave the Wildcats a 46-45 lead with 4:15 left.
Osobor scored in the paint to tie the game 47-47 with 3:25 left, ending an 8-minute field goal drought for the Bobcats. The teams traded 1-for-2 free-throw trips from there, bumbling into overtime at 48-48 when Belo air-balled a 3 with 1.4 seconds left.
Jones and Verplancken each suffered from cruel in-and-out rattling misses to open overtime, and Belo missed a point-blank putback attempt. Verplancken and Battle traded midrange jumpers before Koehler made a pair of free throws for a 52-50 advantage with 1:07 left.
Belo answered with a strong, hooking post move that put him on the line. He made both freebies with 52.4 left and that ultimately sent the game to a second overtime at 52-52.
Battle hit a 3 early in the second extra period. Weber got it back to a knotted score when Koehler scored in transition through contact from Belo, then Ballard scored his only points in his final three games on a driving layup to make it 58-58 with 2:25 left.
With the game tied, Cunningham drove past Robert Ford III on the perimeter; Ford got away with a swinging swipe from behind that hit Cunningham in the stomach area and caused him to drop the ball out of bounds. Replay review gave the ball to MSU because Ford hadn’t touched the ball.
Still, Weber got a stop but Verplancken air-balled contested, fading jumper at the end of the shot clock with 13 seconds left. That set up the Brown-to-Battle alley-oop dunk to win it.
After an instant timeout on the first inbound to advance the ball near midcourt, Verplancken got a deep wing 3 attempt with 1.1 seconds left but was blocked by Caleb Fuller at the buzzer.
With unusual continuity hopefully ahead after two change-filled offseasons, Weber State ostensibly returns all five starters (Cunningham, Verplancken, Koehler, Jones and Alex Tew). WSU says goodbye to senior reserve guards Ballard and Zahir Porter. Porter scored five points in his final college game, dropping in a pair of floaters that represented WSU’s only field goals between the 15-minute mark and Jones’ floater with 4:15 left.
With KJ Cunningham supplanting transfer guard Keith Dinwiddie Jr. in the starting lineup and Koehler replacing Ballard in a December shake-up, Weber State turned around a 2-7 start with one of the worst-rated defenses in the country to a 16-8 finish and a team that slugged it out on the defensive end with nearly anyone.
“We just stayed together,” Verplancken said. “We have a first-year head coach who made adjustments … credit to the staff and him. And some guys had to take on bigger roles, some guys had to take lesser roles but no one complained. We always stayed together and … that’s why we succeeded and came up in conference.”
With winning records overall and in conference play, and with a third-place league finish, there exists at least some possibility WSU could play in a tertiary postseason tournament.
Otherwise, college basketball’s transfer portal window opens March 13 and runs 45 days from there, and the regular signing period for freshmen opens April 12 until May 17.
WSU has three freshmen signed or committed (guard Viljami Vartianen, guard Nemanja Sarenac and big man Marko Sarenac) with redshirt freshman wing Chris Dockery joining the rotation next season.