By Bill Foley
Marcus Payne couldn’t have picked a better time to have his career game.
The Montana Western senior forward was an absolute force Tuesday night, scoring a career-high 23 points and grabbing 10 rebounds to lead the No. 8 Bulldogs to an 84-66 win over Montana Tech at the Straugh Gymnasium. (Stats)
Payne’s performance was doubly important to the 6-foot-7 Livingston native. It was the Frontier Conference opener for both schools, and the big performance came against the team Payne played two seasons for.
“It feels great,” Payne said. “There’s always a lot of emotion going in to play Tech because I used to play for them.”
Payne scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the first half to help the Bulldogs build an 84-66 halftime lead.
On the night, Payne didn’t miss a single shot.
“That’s his career best game. He brought it,” Western coach Steve Keller said. “He was 9 for 9 from the field. That’s great that he stepped up like that.”
Payne said his success inside was a team effort.
“It’s what we worked on in practice, get it inside against their zone,” He said. “It worked well in the game.”
Payne’s pervious high mark for scoring was 20 points against Eastern Oregon 368 days earlier.
On Tuesday, he was one of four players in double figures for the Bulldogs.
“We’ve got a lot of talented guys, and we’re coming together as a group,” Payne said. “A lot of chemistry on this team, that’s the big part.”
That chemistry was on display from the very start as the Bulldogs improved to 7-0 in games that count this season.
Dom Robinson hit a 3-pointer 12 seconds into the game to give the Bulldogs the lead for good in the wire-to-wire victory.
“We talked about winning the first five minutes,” Keller said. “I thought we did that. We talked about winning the first five minutes out of the second half, and I thought we did that.”
Montana Tech coach Adam Hiatt also said the start was the key to the game.
“They’re good on their home floor, and we haven’t been very good on the road,” Hiatt said. “It just kind of came to a crashing halt tonight.
“I thought we could possibly have a chance to be competitive if we started the game a little faster, and we didn’t have a good start,” Hiatt added. “They started really fast, as they usually do in their gym, and it kind of snowballed from there.”
With Robinson and Payne leading the Western fast start, Iman Chatman was well on his way to his best performance as an Oredigger.
Chatman scored Tech’s first seven points of the game. The 6-4 junior, though, hit the floor hard and suffered an ankle injury midway through the first half. He didn’t return.
“That was unfortunate because he probably had his best start of the season,” Hiatt said. “We’ve been trying to get him to be a little more aggressive, and he was. He was efficient, and he was active on both sides of the ball.”
Chatman was limping around after the game, but he seemed upbeat about the injury. That is good because the Orediggers can’t afford to lose more bodies heading into Saturday’s game against Lewis-Clark State.
Junior Kale Guldseth missed his second game with a knee injury, while Dylan Pannabecker and Trent Molesworth just returned from injuries.
“We’re already hit by the injury bug,” Hiatt said. “You see how small our bench was. We only had 10 guys suited up pretty much, so we didn’t have a whole lot of margin for error in that regard.”
Robinson scored 11 of his 15 points in the first half. Brandon Jones added 14 points and eight rebounds for Western, which won the battle of the boards 45-26. Kooper Kidgell scored 14 points, and Zaccheus Darko-Kelly scored nine.
Darko-Kelly also had a highlight-reel block, swatting away a Chris O’Neill bucket on a breakaway.
Tech’s leading scores were a pair of freshmen. Darrius Collins and Nick Fitts each came off the bench to score 17 points. Fitts hit five 3-pointers, while Collins was 8 for 12 from the field.
“We’ve got some really good, young players,” Hiatt said. “We need a little bit more from our older guys, especially in these types of environments. But a credit to Western, there zone was fantastically active tonight. Any time we had a little bit of daylight, they closed that window really quickly.”
John Chapman came off the score nine points for the Orediggers, who also got the seven from Chatman, five from Molesworth, four from O’Neill and Carson Dummer and three from Pannabecker.
Western got five from Reilly King and two apiece from Trey Edwards and Troy Scott.
The Bulldogs don’t have much time to enjoy the victory. The team leaves Wednesday afternoon for Lewiston, Idaho, for Thursday’s game at Lewis-Clark State.
“We’ve got to crank it up and be ready to go,” Keller said. “It’s a big game.”
The Orediggers have until Saturday when they meet the Warriors on the Kelvin Sampson Court. Tech could use the extra time.
“Hopefully we can get healthy, and we can continue to grow and develop,” Hiatt said. “That’s a team with 10 returners, and we’re a team with 11 new players. You could see the difference on Nov. 28. We’ll be a different team when we see them in January, and we hope we can get better this week because we’ve got a big game on Saturday.”