Diggers slip past Dawgs, head to title game

By Bruce Sayler 

Last team with the ball wins wasn’t a bad prediction and was the case in Friday night’s thriller in which Montana Tech edged Montana Western 70-68. (Stats)

Sindou Diallo laid in the winning points with three seconds left on the clock, sending the Orediggers to victory in the Frontier Conference college men’s basketball semifinals, and on to the Monday night championship game in Helena against Carroll. 

NAIA 14th-ranked Montana Tech and No. 8 Carroll shared the Frontier Conference regular-season championship. 

“The play was drawn up for me to come off the screen on by whoever (Jalen Hodges) was guarding,” Diallo said in the Montana Tech HPER Complex hallway near the court, adding that head coach Adam Hiatt’s plan left him options to shoot or pass, depending on the defensive response. “I had to make a play at that point. I decided to go one and there was no backside help from Hodges.” 

The layup dropped through the net and Bulldog Max Clark’s launch at the buzzer from the Montana Western end of the court was well off the mark.

The intense, back-and-forth battle didn’t keep the fans filling the arena to capacity, in their seats. It did keep them in the gym. 

“It was pretty cool to win it here,” senior point guard Drew Huse said. “My first year here, when I was a redshirting as a freshman, we won four conference games. This year, we won 13. It’s pretty cool to be here at this point in time.” 

It was sage-like for Hiatt. 

“We were fortunate in that we had the ball last,” he said. “When we play Western, regardless of seeding, records or standings, it comes down to the last two possessions. We had the ball last and were able to make a play.” 

Previous to Diallo’s game-winner, the Bulldogs had tied the score at 68-all on two free throws by Jamal Stephenson. The foul shots, made with 27 seconds left on the clock, also cost Montana Tech its senior 6-foot-7 sturdy post, Taylor England, who fouled out on the call. 

The Orediggers and called timeout with 18 seconds to go. Hiatt took the play to the huddle and his players wound the clock down to when Diallo drove the left side as his teammates cleared it out for a scoring lane.  

He beat the defense, then, to the hoop. 

“The crowd, we got the support from the fans,” Diallo said, “and tried to make it exciting for them.” 

Success was realized. 

Montana Tech held an early 15-12 lead before Montana Western took off on an 8-0 run on the way to a 33-25 advantage. The Bulldogs gained the lead at 17-15 on a 3-point shot by Stephenson with 7 minutes, 15 seconds left in the half. 

“In the first half, we were down by eight, but I felt good about the way we defended,” Hiatt said. “We had emphasis on taking certain shots tonight. I thought we did a good job executing. 

“In the second half, we were a lot more aggressive going to the rim. We had good ball movement and good player movement.” 

However, Montana Western remained in front for much of the earlier part of the second half. Hodges found a burst for eight of his team’s first 13 points and the Bulldogs owned a 46-37 advantage with 15:40 on the clock. 

England, Diallo, Huse and Derrius Collins scoring managed to keep Montana Western from expanding its advantage. 

Collins then drilled a 3-pointer from the corner. It triggered a 12-0 splurge for the Orediggers. 

Caleb Bellach scored the next five in the spree and Diallo capped it with the last four. Montana Tech had a 49-46 edge, having gone ahead on an authoritative drive to the hoop by Diallo with 12:44 to go. 

The lead didn’t last, but the Orediggers’ intent and resolve did. 

“Derrius’ 3 charged us up and energized us on the defensive end,” Hiatt said. “We were able to get multiple stops and convert them into points. 

“This was a big game and the guys recognized that. One shot can make a difference.” 

Still, Montana Western gained a 52-49 lead on two free throws by Clark and a stuff by Hodges. 

Diallo rebounded a teammate’s miss and threw it into the hoop, then Bellach converted a basket-and-one play. Bulldog misses were turned into Montana Tech baskets by Cody Baumstarck on an oop pass from Bellach and by one of Diallo’s patented, acrobatic drives. 

The 9-0 surge sent the Orediggers ahead 58-51 with 7:12 displayed on the clock. 

Montana Tech possessed a 68-60 command with a minute left to play, but the Bulldogs caught up and tied the score, all on the touch of Stephenson. He was 6-for-6 from the charity stripe down the stretch and mixed in a nifty left-handed layup on a drive. 

The stage was set for Diallo’s last act in the HPER Complex. 

“I think the big thing about big moments – post-season, championships, playoffs – is experience has to rise to the occasion,” Hiatt said. “Taylor played great with 18 points and eight rebounds and his defense. Sindou was dynamite. Drew defended and rebounded. Our three seniors led the charge. 

“Drew was aggressive and had a great week of practice. We talked all week about how Drew, offensively, had a sense of urgency.” 

Huse’s dad, Brad, starred for the Orediggers during another good stretch for the program, more than 30 years ago. Kelly (Sauvageau) Huse, Brad’s wife and Drew’s mother, was a volleyball standout for Montana Tech. 

“When we first recruited Drew here,” Hiatt said, “he said his goal was to be part of the best Montana Tech team ever.” 

Diallo finished the game with 24 points, England with 18 and Huse 11. Also, Bellach had eight points, Collins five and Baumstarck four. Baumstarck led on the boards with 10 rebounds. Camdyn LaRance, Christian Jones, Keeley Bake, Bridger Larson and Michael Ure also saw time as Montana Tech raised its record to 25-6. The Orediggers were 13-2 in the Frontier Conference. 

Montana Western went 7-8 in the Frontier and completed a 19-13 season. Hodges had 22 points, Clark 17 and Stephenson 13 for the Bulldogs. Clark pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds. Jok Jok had eight points, Dillon brothers Tanner and Michael Haverfield tallied three apiece and Colter Miller scored two. Ky Kouba also played.