By Bill Foley
Nick Fitts has a message for basketball fans who have not been watching the Montana Tech Orediggers during the 2018-19 season.
Come on up.
Fitts and the Oredigger men’s basketball team made a statement to its fanbase and the Frontier Conference Thursday night with a 77-74 win over No. 23-ranked University of Providence at the HPER Complex. (Stats)
“They better start coming out to our games. We don’t have very many people here. They should show soon,” Fitts, a sophomore guard, said after the Orediggers overcame a 41-32 halftime deficit. “If we keep winning, you guys should show up. That’s all I’m saying. We’ll put on a show for you guys every single time you come out. That’s for sure.”
The Orediggers put on a show for their second straight Frontier Conference win to improve to 3-2 in league play and 13-4 overall. They beat Rocky Mountain College Saturday in Butte.
Oredigger coach Adam Hiatt said that consecutive league victory is a big deal for his program looking to turn the corner in the coach’s third season.
“It’s a big confidence booster,” Hiatt said. “This program had not won consecutive conference games in a long, long time. That was the next step for us. It’s a big step in the right direction.”
That step needed a big second half for the Orediggers. It also took a big call by the officials.
Seconds after Providence’s Jacob Wetzel tied the game at 74 with a contested 3-pointer, Oredigger Troy Owens Jr. drew a foul on a shot just inside the 3-pointer line.
Providence coach Steve Keller was called for a technical for arguing the call. Fitts hit one free throw on the technical before Owens sank two free tosses with 2.4 seconds left.
Brandon Cotton’s half-court shot at the buzzer was off the mark, and the Orediggers left the court in celebration.
“We’re finally making that break through,” Fitts said. “We haven’t had back to back (conference) wins in years in our program.”
The Orediggers, who were playing without Nate Ward because of “medical issues,” saw all five starters reach double figures.
Owens tossed in 22 points, while Taylor England scored 16, Fitts poured in 13, Derris Collins netted 11, and Dylan Pannabecker battled for 10.
Pannabecker (eight rebounds) and England (seven) also led the Orediggers on the boards.
Tech’s turnaround came after the Argonauts had all the momentum going into halftime. Austin Starr sank a buzzer-beating 3-pointer for that nine-point edge.
“I didn’t think we played with great urgency in the first half defensively, and that’s our calling card,” Hiatt said. “They came after us. They made shots, and they were confident. We didn’t do a good job maintaining our pressure. We let them get to the rim too much.”
Things were much different after the break.
“In the second half, we made some good adjustments, we protected the rim really well, we turned them over a few more times than what we did in the first half,” Hiatt said. “All in all, it was a great second half performance by us.”
Fitts pointed to Collins as the leader of the defensive performance that held the Argos to 28 percent shooting in the second half. Providence hit on 55 percent of its shots before the break.
“Derrius, he’s the defensive specialist,” Fitts said. “I can’t tell you how many times that guy is always in the right place because he knows what to do. He’s the smartest defender on our team, and he’s there all the time.”
“We’re playing how we should,” Fitts added. “We’re playing good ‘D.’ We stepped up in that second half after not performing as well as we should in that first half, and ended up closing it out.”
The Oredigger shooting statistics were the opposite of the Argos.
“We had guys step up,” Hiatt said. “We went from shooting 32 percent in the first half to almost 54 (53.6) in the second. That’s big. They went from shooting 55 to 28, so we really flipped the script in the second half.”
The Orediggers hit on 5 of 11 shots from behind the 3-point line in the second half. Fitts hit four threes on the night, while Owens sank three and Collins hit one.
Owens hit a 3-pointer with 12 minutes, 22 seconds left to put the Orediggers up 53-52. The Argos, who led by as many as 12 points, did not lead again.
Tech nearly missed on a chance to close out the win by going cold from the free throw line down the stretch. That allowed for Wetzel to have the chance to tie the game on the tough three with 19.6 seconds left.
After a timeout, Tech played for the last shot. Owens drove from the right side to the middle and got off the shot just inside the 3-point line. Brandon Cotton was called for a foul that helped Tech avoid overtime.
While Keller objected to the big call, Hiatt said it was the right one.
“The game was called that way,” Tech’s coach said. “I was expecting that call just by nature of how the game had been called on the other end. They’re protecting shooters. That happened right before on their end.”
Starr scored 20 points to lead the Argos, who fell to 3-3 and 12-5 with their second loss in three nights. Providence fell to MSU-Northern on a buzzer beater at home on Tuesday.
Jaxen Hashley battled inside for 17 points and 14 rebounds. Cotton scored nine points and dished out six assists, while Jack Taylor and Jalen Shephard each scored eight.
Shephard fouled out of the game with 11:40 left in the second half.
The Orediggers got three points off the bench. William Mytty scored two on a breakaway two-handed slam dunk.
That crowd-pleasing dunk was just another thing that basketball fans are missing by staying home when the Orediggers play.
“Hopefully they’re taking notice,” Hiatt said. “We have a good product to put on the floor. We have a good squad. They play really hard, and they’re super fun to watch. They play unselfishly, and we’ve got some nice talent.”
The Orediggers play MSU-Northern Saturday in Havre. Tech’s next home game is when Providence comes to town again on Jan. 25.