There was a unique male at the Montana State University men's basketball game Wednesday night. No, it wasn't MSU football head coach Rob Ash, or any of the football players who came to be honored at halftime. Ash has been to basketball games before, as have his football players -- they usually sit behind the visitors bench and heckle the opposing teams. At first their absence, startled me until I realized they had their own section for "Hey, look at us as we were Big Sky Conference co-champions" banner night for the second year in a row.
He was a bald white man with steely blue eyes, wore a suit and carried a congenial smile. The name tag next to mine on press row said "Travis Schlenk, Golden State Warriors." Two days earlier, I mentioned this to my boss and colleague. "Why would the NBA scouts come to Bozeman? Weber State has been to Berkeley, Portland, Sacramento and Flagstaff already; those are bigger and better locales." But there he was: a bona fide NBA scout sitting front row to see Wildcat Damian Lillard, who has been named Big Sky Player of the Week five times and was named to both the Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy award lists. It was odd -- I don't want to call either Mr. Schlenk or Lillard royalty, but one works in the NBA and the other is going to be in the NBA if not next season, then the season after that. Pretty good company.
What Mr. Schlenk - and the announced crowd of 2,655 (by the way, only 2,655 people came to see a soon-to-be NBA point guard and the top-ranked BSC team play a rare Wednesday night game in the fourth-biggest "college town" in the league? Come on) did end up seeing was Montana State's modus operandi all year. The Bobcats fell behind from the beginning and fought like hell, even while committing some of the dumbest acts on a basketball court in the history of the game, to make it respectable and pretend like they care about the outcome. Schlenk did see a show, however, as sophomore forward Shawn Reid scored a career-high 31 points on 12-of-15 shooting. He sank 5 of 8 #superhoops, matching his career-best in both categories, to keep MSU afloat throughout a game they had much more than an athletic contest on its mind. Down 12-7 became down 20-9, became down 42-24 at half. Then Reid and senior guard Rod Singleton went to work, scoring 31 of their combined 40 points in the second half.
Schlenk found himself impressed -- at least that's what I inferred from the game-long conversation we had -- with Reid's character and ability, at least on this night. We also both marveled at what has become a normal observation by yours truly: MSU plays some bad basketball at times. Outlet passes go out of bounds, passes into traffic result in the other team obtaining the ball, and the Bobcats have another exciting MO: bring the ball up into the halfcourt, then pass it once and fire up a #SUPERHOOP shot 23-25 feet from the basket. MSU took 26 Wednesday night and made six, but only because of Reid.
The home team turned a morose crowd into a cheering frenzy after halftime, using a 22-6 run to pull within 48-46. It slowly unraveled again from there: MSU never fell behind by more than nine, but never got closer to WSU than six.
Part of the reason Schlenk did seem bored, even as MSU was coming back, was he wasn't able to do his job for a good chunk of the night. It was also a big reason MSU was able to get back into the contest. Lillard entered halftime with one personal foul, but found himself with 13:47 left to play in the game. The redshirt junior spent just over 10 minutes on the bench, and every once in a while Schlenk would offer up commentary on his personal suffering:
"Come on, Coach. Put Lillard back in already."
"Hey, if I gave you $20, would you ask him to bring my guy back in?"
"I don't know if he'd sit this long in an NBA game, even in foul trouble."
"Can we change the channel?"
When Lillard came back in for the final 3:29, Schlenk let out a "Oh, here we go."
The most famous Wildcat since Harold Arceneaux -- who he'll surpass by this time next year -- helped his team hold on by scoring four points and forcing a turnover in his final minutes to help placate Mr. NBA scout, who left shortly after the Bobcats decided to hack-a-Wildcat in an effort to get closer.
"I've seen this show before, and I dislike it. I even tell my kids not to foul if they're down by more than five in the last two minutes, even if the coach tells them to," Schlenk offered as his last words of wisdom. "Take your loss like men."
MSU ultimately did after a weekend which saw its leading scorer get into a bar fight after the team came home from a road loss in Greeley, Colo. Reid afterward offered this among his postgame comments: "To go out and play like that with everything - our losing streak, the situation - to go out like that shows how much character we really have as a team and how much fight and determination we have. Just us coming in and playing how we did, I don't care what anyone says, we came and we came to fight today."
WEBER STATE 79, at MONTANA STATE 70 02/15/2012
WEBER STATE 21-4 (13-1) -- C. Colimon 6-14 8-11 22; K. Tresnak 4-9 6-7 14; B. Fulton 7-10 0-0 17; D. Lillard 6-9 4-4 17; S. Bamforth 3-7 9-10 15; D. Mahoney 2-4 1-2 5; J. Richardson 1-4 0-0 3; K. Bullinger 1-2 2-2 4; G. Wheelwright 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 26-48 22-25 79. MONTANA STATE 11-14 (6-8) -- S. Reid 12-15 2-3 31; C. Moon 1-10 2-2 4; R. Singleton 2-5 5-5 9; M. Fall 5-10 3-3 13; J. Budinich 1-10 0-0 2; T. Johnson 2-4 0-1 4; M. Dison 2-3 0-0 5; J. Allou 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 26-60 12-14 70.
Three-point goals: WEB 5-17 (K. Bullinger 0-1; D. Mahoney 0-1; D. Lillard 1-2; B. Fulton 3-6; S. Bamforth 0-3; J. Richardson 1-3; G. Wheelwright 0-1), MTST 6-26 (J. Budinich 0-7; S. Reid 5-8; R. Singleton 0-1; C. Moon 0-9; M. Dison 1-1); Rebounds: WEB 26 (K. Tresnak 5), MTST 26 (S. Reid 7); Assists: WEB 13 (J. Richardson 4), MTST 13 (R. Singleton 8); Total Fouls -- WEB 19, MTST 22; Fouled Out: WEB-None; MTST-M. Dison.