By Bill Foley
The Orediggers are ready for primetime.
With a television audience watching around the Northwest, Montana Tech claimed its spot atop the Frontier Conference men’s basketball standings with a convincing 73-58 win over No. 6 Carroll College Saturday at the HPER Complex. (Stats)
“It feels pretty good,” said senior guard Sindou Diallo, who put on a show with 19 points, five assists and a highlight-reel dunk in the win. “Our hard work and determination are what got us here. From the beginning of the season, we just preached, ‘Just work hard and control what we can control.’ That’s what we did tonight.”
The victory, which avenged Tech’s 80-78 loss Jan. 6 in Helena, lifts the Orediggers to 18-5 overall and 7-1 in conference play. The Saints fall to second place at 19-3 and 6-2.
Oredigger coach Adam Hiatt said his guys like playing on television. The coach pointed out that Tech’s upset win at the University of Montana two years ago was also on SWX.
“We knew it was a big game,” Hiatt said. “Then when we’re in shootaround, we see all the cameras come rolling in. Our guys are like, ‘Alright, this is a big game.’ I think that actually helped us focused up for the game.”
Tech then responded with a performance that was worthy of the spotlight.
The Orediggers never trailed. Diallo hit two free throws 3 minutes, 3 seconds into the game to put the Orediggers up for good at 7-5.
The next time down the court, Drew Huse sank a 3-pointer. Tech slowly stretched the lead to 41-30 at halftime. Diallo scored on a layup as timed expired on the first 20 minutes.
Keeley Bake came off the bench to score six quick points to help the Orediggers take their first double-digit lead.
Diallo penetrated and fed the ball to Bake in the corner. The freshman from Fairfield sank a 3-poitner and drew a foul from Garrett Long.
Bake hit the ground on the foul, and Diallo rushed over to excitedly help up Bake, who sank the free throw for the four-point play for a 32-22 lead.
After Jovan Sljivancanin scored to cut the lead back to eight, Bake scored on reverse layup set up by another Diallo assist.
“I really loved our effort tonight,” Hiatt said. “We played extremely hard. We did a great job controlling the game on the defensive end. Then we got enough offense. We were efficient offensively. We didn’t force anything.”
Each time the Saints got a bucket to try to climb back in the game, the Orediggers had an answer. Caleb Bellach threw down a dunk in traffic, and Derrius Collins hit a 3-poitner to put the Orediggers up 48-34 early in the second half.
Carroll never got it to within single digits again, and Tech led by as many as 18 points after a Bake 3-pointer with 9:07 left in the game.
From there, the only drama was Diallo, who left the game once when he took a hard hit and crashed to the floor. He also left the game twice because of cramps, including right after a dunk in traffic to make it 68-51 with 3:10 left.
Like he did two days earlier in the win over Rocky Mountain College, Diallo singled the end of an Oredigger victory with an electrifying jam.
“We got great defense, we moved the ball really well, and we just played as a fist,” Diallo said. “That’s what is going to get this team the conference championship. If we can continue to play this way, we’re unbeatable. We’ll go really far.”
Bellach added 13 points for the Orediggers, who saw 10 players score points in the win. Taylor England scored nine points and grabbed eight rebounds, and Bake finished with nine points.
Tech also got seven points from Christian Jones, five from Collins, four from Huse and Cody Baumstrack, two from Camdyn LaRance and one from Bridger Larson. Michael Ure contributed for the Orediggers, too.
Sljivancanin’s 26 points and 13 rebounds led the Saints. Jonny Hillman scored eight points, and Andrew Cook tossed in seven.
“We feel like we are improving during the course of the season,” Hiatt said. “We’re starting to play our best basketball. But there’s a lot of games left. We’re eight games in. There’s seven remaining.”
Diallo also warned that the Orediggers have a long way to go.
“Don’t get too happy because we’ve got a lot of games left,” he said. “Anything can happen at this point. We’ll just keep working hard and playing hard, and hopefully we’ll stay No. 1.”
The Orediggers will play at the University of Providence on Thursday before heading home to take on MSU-Northern next Saturday. Tech also has a Feb. 10 trip to Carroll College coming up.
“Now everyone is going to be gunning for us,” Hiatt said. “So, we’ve got to come back Monday with a renewed focus to continue this journey. It’s been a fun journey to this point.”