Digger men open Frontier with convincing victory

Digger men open Frontier with convincing victory
Montana Tech senior Sindou Diallo goes up for a bucket as Montana Western's Michael Haverfield defends Thursday night at the HPER Complex. (Bill Foley photo)

By Bill Foley

It turns out that it is just as fun to play with Sindou Diallo as it is to watch him play.

The electrifying Montana Tech senior put on a show Thursday night to lead the Orediggers to a convincing 87-75 win over Montana Western at the HPER Complex. (Stats)

The game was the Frontier Conference opener for both men’s basketball teams.

“He’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever played with,” said sophomore Caleb Bellach, who is in his first season as an Oredigger after transferring from Montana State. “That’s one of the reasons I came here, because I knew I was going to be able to play with him. It’s been everything I could imagine playing with him.

“He’s a D1 player, and he showed that tonight.”

Diallo led four Orediggers in double figures with 18 points. He dished out three assists, nearly blew the roof off the gym with a few dunks, and led all players with high fives to the student fans on each end of the court.

Simply put, Diallo had a blast as the Orediggers thrilled their boisterous home crowd one day after receiving votes in the NAIA Top 25 Coaches Poll.

That fun, Bellach said, has spread through the entire Oredigger roster.

“I’m pretty sure if you asked all 20, everyone is having fun,” Bellach said. “We’re having a blast. We’re learning. We’re getting better. We’re not perfect, but we’re getting better every game.”

Of course, winning is almost always fun. This year, though, the Orediggers seem to be enjoying it so much more. Their fans, who were shut out by COVID last season, are, too.

“We have a really fun team to coach,” Oredigger coach Adam Hiatt said. “They’re great, high-character guys. They want to win. They want to play for each other, every one of them.”

Diallo was one of four Orediggers to score in double figures in the win. Bellach and Taylor England each scored 15 points. Derrius Collins tossed in 12.

England also grabbed seven rebounds and Collins pulled down five for the Orediggers, who got contributions from 10 plays. Drew Huse tossed in nine points, Keeley Bake scored seven, Camdyn LaRance netted six, Bridger Larson scored three, and Cody Baumstarck tossed in two.

Michael Ure also played for Tech, and his coach took notice.

“I’m really happy for a lot of guys,” Hiatt said. “Michael Ure got in and had four big offensive boards. That saved us possessions.”

The coach had to look long and hard to find a downside to Tech’s victory. That, he said, was that the Orediggers started each half slowly.

The Bulldogs led 7-1 to start the game, and Hiatt called time out Collins sank a 3-pointer for Tech’s first field goal with 16 minutes, 22 seconds left in the first half.

The Orediggers battled back to take a 48-40 lead into halftime, and then Tech saw Western go on a 7-0 run to start the second. That run was highlighted by a pair of dunks by Jalen Hodges.

This time, Diallo sank a 3-pointer to jump start the Orediggers, who did not trail after the break.

“It’s always good to learn from wins,” Hiatt said. “Our energy level wasn’t where it needed to be. We just weren’t light on our feet, and we weren’t flying around with the energy we needed. We corrected that up a little bit, and got ourselves a cushion. We made big plays down the stretch.”

Hiatt also pointed out to the 10 3-pointers made by Western.

“We didn’t defend the 3-point line as well as we need to the next time we play them,” he said.

For the most part, there was not much you could find wrong with the Orediggers on this night.

The Orediggers led by as many as 15 points, and Tech took the lead for good at 32-30 when England scored inside. That started a 9-0 run.

“These are tough games,” Hiatt said. “No matter who you play, conference games are tough. Western has a really good team, and we have ton of respect for them. We’re just happy that guys stepped up in big moments.”

The coach said his team is doing an incredible job taking care of the ball this season. The Orediggers forced 12 Western turnovers, and Tech only turned the ball over five times.

“One of the biggest strengths we have as a team is we don’t turn the ball over for us,” Hiatt said. “In years past, that’s been an issue for us. We could manufacture good shot opportunities, but we would just turn the ball over at a pretty ridiculous clip. This year, we don’t. We’re No. 1 in the country in fewest turnovers per game.

“That’s a big thing for us, that we try to emphasize every day.”

Hodges finished with 23 points to lead the Bulldogs. Ky Kouba hit four 3-pointers and scored 20 for Western, which was playing without the injured Tanner Haverfield and Max Clark. Colter Miller added 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Bulldogs.

Western also got eight points from Michael Haverfield, six from Jamal Stephenson, three from Treyton Paxton and two from Jok Jok.

Western, which fell to 9-4 overall, will play host to Carroll College Saturday night at the Straugh Gymnasium. The Orediggers (8-3) will head to Billings to take on Rocky Mountain College.

“It’s a great win, but as we tell the guys, no game will be harder than the next one you play,” Hiatt said.

Bellach, who announced in March that he was transferring to the school where his father, Jeff, helped the Orediggers win Frontier Conference titles in 1998 and 1999, said he expects the good times to keep rolling for the current Orediggers.

“I love it here. I don’t regret my decision at all. I’m just really happy to be an Oredigger,” Bellach said. “We’re having a blast; we’re learning and getting better. We want to hang a banner, too. It’s been a while since we’ve done that.”

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