By Bill Foley
Oredigger fans, meet Troy Owens Jr. and Nate Ward.
Oh sure, the two Montana Tech men’s basketball players have been enrolled in the school since August. They’ve even played games for the Orediggers this season.
They haven’t seen them like this, though. Saturday night was their breakout party.
Owens and Ward combined 48 points to lead the Orediggers to a 75-67 Frontier Conference win over Rocky Mountain College at the HPER Complex. (Stats)
Owens scored 28 points, while Ward tossed in 20 as the Orediggers improved to 2-2 in conference play. Both are season highs for a pair of players who battled injuries in the first part of the season. Ward, who scored his points on just seven shots, also dished out four assists in the win.
They were performances that helped the Orediggers play perhaps their best game of the season to rebound from last week’s loss at Carroll College.
“That’s what we expected from those two guys,” Tech coach Adam Hiatt said. “We really were excited about our core group returning, and we were really excited about the new guys that we brought in. But, we just hadn’t been playing to our potential, and those guys did.”
Ward, a sophomore from University Place, Washington, played in his 11th game as an Oredigger. Owens, a junior from Sacramento, played in his seventh.
Owens, who was out 55 days with a grade-3 sprain in his ankle, said he is happy to be back to full strength as the Orediggers hit the Frontier Conference season in full steam.
“This is my second week back, and I’m just trying to get in the flow,” Owens said. “The flow was good today.”
That flow started with the 3-point line. The Orediggers hit 10 of 18 shots from behind the arch.
“At some point you’ve got to make a few to keep a team honest, and they did,” Hiatt said of the long balls. “They made enough to open up drive lines. Offense is so much easier as a team when you’re able to make shots.”
Owens connected on 5 of 7 shots from 3-point land to lead the way. Ward and Derrius Collins each hit two, and Blake Dittman sank one.
A two and a three by Owens and threes by Ward and Collins gave the Orediggers 11 straight points to break open a 9-all game midway through the first half.
The Orediggers, who led by as many as 17 points, never trailed again.
While Rocky made a handful of chargers as the home team, the Oredigger always had an answer.
Hiatt said his team that usually has 3- or 4-minute lulls each game, shortened their lulls drastically in the win over Rocky.
“Every run that they went on, we responded, and that’s big,” he said. “That’s what you have to do in conference play.”
Ward said that was due to Tech’s defense, which was aided by the hours and hours of time spent in film study.
“Studying the film, knowing the plays they were going to run, knowing the personnel, that was huge,” Owens said. “Coach coached us up well. We had our homework down, and it just planned out the defense.”
Collins finished with nine points for the Orediggers, who saw eight players dent the scorebook. Taylor England contributed with six points and nine rebounds. Tech also got four points from Carson Dummer, three from Dittman and William Mytty and two points and three assists from Dylan Pannabecker.
Nick Fitts and Christian Jones also contributed or the Orediggers, who improved to 12-4 overall.
Jared Samuelson scored 23 points to lead the Bears, who fell to 2-2 and 11-5. Austin Payne came off the bench to score 10 points, while Satchel McDonald scored eight, and Brandon The Boy and former Oredigger Lukas Vining each scored seven.
Montana Tech is back in action Thursday when they play host to the University of Providence.
Hiatt said he hopes his team continues to have the fun it clearly was having during the Owens and Ward breakout party Saturday night.
“It’s fun to be a player,” the coach said. “That’s what I keep telling them. It’s fun to be a player. It’s no fun to be in your own head. These guys finally played loose, and they played free. I was most grateful for that — that our guys finally got out of our own way.”