Riley Nordgaard

Montana State's Riley Nordgaard goes to the basket against Montana's Gabi Harington (3) in their game last Saturday in Bozeman.

A. Sanchez-Gonzalez, For The Gazette

BOZEMAN — Riley Nordgaard was flustered into a 1-for-6 shooting performance last Saturday against rival Montana, and the look on her face was one of dissatisfaction.

Nordgaard, a senior forward from Canby, Minnesota, played 22 minutes before fouling out, and was limited to three points. Scoring isn’t everything, but this was an uncharacteristic outing for Montana State’s second-leading scorer.

Still, the most important thing for Nordgaard and MSU is that they beat the Lady Griz 71-54 and clinched a first-round bye for the Big Sky Conference tournament, which begins Monday in Reno, Nevada.

“Montana plays a slower-paced game. We like to run. We’re quick and we’re pretty athletic,” said Nordgaard, who did chip in eight rebounds and three assists against UM. “I thought I did a lot of other things to contribute, defensively and rebounding. I got a couple calls that I didn’t quite agree with, but that’s going to happen.

“It’s more about focusing, regrouping and getting back into it, and I thought the team responded great. We ended up finishing out the game, and a ‘W’ is the only thing I’m taking from that moving forward.”

The second-place Bobcats (20-6, 13-3), who have reached 20 wins for the second straight year, are in a similar position as last season when they finished as the Big Sky’s regular-season champion and earned the top seed for the league tournament.

One difference is that MSU will play its final two pre-tourney games at home, beginning Wednesday against fifth-place Idaho State (16-11, 10-6). The Bobcats can still get the No. 1 seed in Reno if they take care of business this week ... and get some help.

North Dakota (19-8, 14-2) currently sits in the catbird seat.

“If you can’t be excited this time of year you shouldn’t be in sports. This is the most exciting time of year,” MSU coach Tricia Binford said. “When you hit March — March Madness — anything can happen. You’ve got to step up, be ready to compete. It’s just a fun time.”

Last year, having the top seed for the conference tournament turned out to be a curse for the Bobcats. They lost their first game in Reno to Idaho State, on a buzzer-beater no less, and that was after they dropped their final two regular-season games on the road.

If MSU seems a bit more confident this season, or perhaps a bit more groomed for the process of the postseason, it’s not by accident.

“Last year we had the No. 1 seed, a ton of wins and a ton of veterans,” Nordgaard said. “I think the attitude and the mindset is a little different this year. We’ve dropped a few games, we have a lot of freshmen who are getting tons of minutes, and I think all of that has contributed to us kind of having an edge about us.

“Not that we didn’t have an edge last year, but it’s tournament time. And it’s time to get down to business.

“Experience builds your intuition, but I think you’ve got to focus on the present, just finishing out games.”

Idaho State beat MSU in the teams’ first matchup this season, a 67-59 decision in Pocatello, Idaho, on New Year’s Eve.

The Bengals and Bobcats played a thriller at Worthington Arena last year, with MSU prevailing 82-80 in overtime. A 3-pointer by Delany Junkermier before the buzzer sent the game into OT, and the Bobcats won it at the free-throw line in the extra period.

Since then MSU has run its home winning streak to 23 games, the fourth-longest streak in Division I.

“What’s been remarkable about them is how they’ve responded throughout the good and the bad and the highs and lows,” Binford said. “Particularly being a team coming off a (regular-season) championship and understanding that we’re getting everybody’s best game every night.

“That has shown our kids’ ability to be ready to go, and great consistency.”

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MSU Bobcats Reporter

Sportswriter for The Billings Gazette covering Montana State University athletics.