By Bill Foley
Another night, another near miss for the Montana Tech men’s basketball team.
This time is was No. 8 Montana Western that the Orediggers took to the wire in a Frontier Conference thriller at the HPER Complex.
Western escaped town with a 75-71 victory, and the Bulldogs definitely knew they were in a dogfight. (Stats)
“They played really well,” said Montana Western coach Steve Keller, whose Bulldogs rolled to an 84-66 win when the teams met Nov. 28 in Dillon. “They’re a lot better. They’re going to be a tough out the rest of the way.”
It was almost as if Keller was warning the rest of the conference of a lesson Carroll College learned the hard two seven nights earlier.
(Story continues below photo gallery)
Oredigger coach Adam Hiatt, who is tired of moral victories from a team that has been in battles all season, was somewhat upbeat following the loss.
“We seem to be in this situation a lot,” said Tech’s second-year coach. “What else can you ask for? You’re playing a top-10 team on your home floor, and it’s a one-point game with under a minute, and they made big plays.”
Ultimately, the Bulldogs, who won for the seventh time in eight games, had too much for the Orediggers.
The dagger came at the free throw line, where Kooper Kidgell, Brandon Jones and Dom Robinson combined to go 6 for 6 from the stripe in the final 1 minute, 33 seconds to hold off the Orediggers.
“They live on it,” Hiatt said of the charity stripe. “It’s the strength of their team. We thought we could do a little better job keeping them off the foul line.”
It’s no accident that the Bulldogs got to the line. Keller said his team’s goal is to make more free throws than the opponent attempts in each game.
Western did that Thursday. The Bulldogs hit 29 of 37 free throws, while the Orediggers made 14 of 20.
Hiatt said the Orediggers’ four main objectives were to hold Western to 20 or fewer free throws, limit the Bulldogs to less than 10 offensive rebounds, hold them under 80 points and shoot 20 free throws.
“We were close with a lot of things, but ultimately the foul shots hurt us,” Hiatt said. “We did a pretty good job defending them in the half court, making them take some tough shots and challenging shots at the rim.
“They’re a tough team, and you can only do so much against that type of talent. Ultimately, on the other side of the floor, you’ve got to be able to make big shots and big plays. We didn’t quite make enough of those.”
Montana Tech led for exactly 14 seconds of the game.
Carson Dummer scored off an assist from Chris O’Neill to put the Orediggers on top 4-3 with 15 minutes, 43 seconds left in the first half.
Kidgell quickly answered by scoring off a Jones pass to put the Bulldogs on top for good.
Western led by as many as 15 points in the first half. Every time the Bulldogs looked poised to blow it open, the Orediggers, like they always do, clawed back in the game.
The Orediggers pulled to within one point on two occasions in the final two minutes. Both times came when O’Neill hit a mid-range jump shot.
He cut the lead to 69-68 with 2:01 left and 71-70 with 56 seconds left.
O’Neill, though, fouled out during Western’s game-clinching free throw run.
“They made that 15- to 12-foot shoot consistently all night,” Keller said. “That’s what we usually give up in our zone.”
O’Neill finished with a team-leading 16 points. He also dished out six assists and grabbed six rebounds.
“He’s such a good two-way player,” Hiatt said of his senior guard. “He’s a bulldog on the defensive end. I thought tonight was his best game that he played all season long. He was supper efficient. He was controlled. He didn’t force shots. He didn’t turn the ball over. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Jones had himself a night, too.
The powerful 6-foot-5 Western junior scored 23 points and pulled down 16 rebounds. The big night included a rebound dunk that even the highly-partial Oredigger crowd appreciated.
“He played like a man tonight,” Keller said.
Robinson scored 16 points despite shooting just 3 for 12 from the field. The senior guard hit 9 of 10 free throws.
“Great players, what they do is step up and find a way to help their team,” Hiatt said. “That’s what he did. Even though he shot a poor percentage from the field, he still ended up getting 16 points on 12 shots, which is pretty dang efficient. That’s what great players do, and that’s why he’s one of the top two or three guys in the conference.”
Kidgell scored 15 points for the Bulldogs, who got nine from Zaccheus Darko-Kelly, seven from Warren Helligar, four from Marcus Payne and one from Troy Scott.
Four Orediggers reached double figures. Derrius Collings came off the bench to score 13 points, earning the freshman some high praise from his coach.
“Derrius Collins had his best game of the year,” Hiatt said. “He was a baller. He got in that high post, made shots, wasn’t afraid of the moment.”
Dummer, who also came off the bench, scored 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while Jake Miles scored 10 points.
Tech also got seven points from Dylan Pannabecker, five from Iman Chatman, four from John Chapman, three from Trent Molesworth and two from Nick Fitts.
Fitts returned from injury to play in his first game since Dec. 28. Unfortunately for the Orediggers, Chatman and Molesworth both left the game with injuries.
Kale Guldseth and Taylor England also contributed for the Orediggers.
Keller was relieved to leave town with the win.
“A road win is a road win in our league,” he said. “It’s huge. Good teams find a way to win. Give (the Orediggers) credit because they hung in there and had a chance. We just made free throws.”
No. 19 Lewis-Clark State is up next for both teams.
The Orediggers (2-9, 10-12) will take on the Warriors Friday night at the HPER Complex Western (8-3, 18-4) hosts LC Saturday in Dillon.