BOISE, Idaho — Montana State is going back to the Big Dance.
For the second consecutive season, the Bobcats won the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament championship, this time with an 85-78 victory over pesky Northern Arizona late Wednesday at Idaho Central Arena.
PHOTOS: MONTANA STATE BOBCATS VICTORIOUS OVER NAU IN BIG SKY CHAMPIONSHIP
It was the Bobcats’ third consecutive trip to the tourney title game under coach Danny Sprinkle, and marks their second straight championship. The win clinched for MSU the Big Sky’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and the Cats (25-9) will learn their seeding and matchup info with the release of the 68-team bracket on Sunday.
MSU's RaeQuan Battle led all scorers with 25 points. Darius Brown II added 15 points, five rebounds and four assists, and Jubrile Belo had 14 points before fouling out. The Bobcats made 31 of 37 free throws and shot 50% from the floor.
Montana State escaped a double-overtime test in the semifinals against Weber State on Tuesday, and it didn’t come particularly easy against NAU. A 3-pointer by Battle at the 12:09 mark of the second half put MSU ahead 55-45, but the Lumberjacks trimmed the deficit to five on two occasions.
A four-point play by Battle with 4:26 left gave MSU a nine-point lead, 74-65, and the Cats were able to seal the game after a corner 3 by Robert Ford put them ahead by 12 with under two minutes to play.
Ninth-seeded NAU (12-23) made the title game after beating No. 10 Idaho on Saturday, then knocking off top-seeded Eastern Washington with a buzzer-beater on Sunday, then upsetting No. 4 Montana in the semifinals on Tuesday. But the Lumberjacks, who would have had the lowest winning percentage of any NCAA tournament qualifying team in history, couldn’t get past the No. 2-seeded Bobcats.
Carson Towt led NAU with 16 points and nine rebounds before leaving with five fouls. Xavier Fuller added 15 points while Jalen Cone and Oakland Fort each had 14.
Montana State will enter the NCAA tournament having won eight in a row and 17 of its past 19.