RENO, Nev. — Brian Fish is the first to credit North Dakota as a talented basketball team and the reigning Big Sky champions that “hasn’t lost a game in this tournament in two years.” But that’s not where his focus lies as he prepares his Montana State team for its conference tournament opener Tuesday against the Fighting Hawks.
“At this time of year you always worry more about yourself than who you’re playing,” Fish said. “They’ll add a thing or two, we’ll add a thing or two, but we’re all familiar with each other. It’s about us doing what we need to do.”
The first contest of the men’s tournament, Tuesday’s 1:05 p.m. Mountain time contest shapes up as a tossup. The Bobcats topped UND 79—68 on Jan. 6 in Bozeman, but missed a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer in a 75-74 Fighting Hawks win at Grand Forks on Feb. 1.
A pair of talented guards lead the Fighting Hawks, who enter Tuesday’s game as the eighth seed with an 11-19 overall record, 6-12 in the league. Geno Crandell averages 16.2 points per game against the Cats in five career games, and Cortez Seales scored 27 points in this season’s two games between the teams. Center Connor Avants has proven difficult to handle, as well.
The Fighting Hawks took flight nearly a week ago, travelling to Portland State and Sacramento State last weekend before heading to Reno. The Cats finished the regular season with home losses to Idaho State and Weber State to finish the regular season 13-18 overall and 6-12 in the conference.
While the results didn’t go MSU’s way last weekend, Fish is pleased with his team’s general trajectory. “I thought we played well on the Idaho-Eastern (Washington) trip, and we played well last weekend except for one bad half. I think the guys are getting better, and I like the way they’re fighting. They’re trying to get this changed around.”
While recent history hasn’t been kind to the Bobcats in Reno — MSU lost each of the two seasons the Big Sky Tourney has been played in the Biggest Little City in the World on a neutral court — it hasn’t always been this way. MSU won the 1986 Big Sky Tourney at the Lawlor Events Center on the University of Nevada campus, topping Montana for the crown.
Fish said that reaching that pinnacle again will take a strong attention to detail. “We need to keep getting better, and I think the guys have worked their tails off trying to do that,” he said. “The effort has been there.”
Fish pinpoints one statistical area as a key to the game. “We outrebounded by 13 at our place and won, and were outrebounded by 13 at their place and lost. It’s pretty simple, to me.”