BOZEMAN — Junior forward Keljin Blevins is new to Montana State’s lineup, but he’s also a veteran of the college basketball grind. The 6-foot-6, 200-pound brute transferred to MSU before last season from Southern Miss, where he played in 54 games.
But the Bobcats’ 79-65 victory over Denver on Monday at Worthington Arena — during which Blevins scored 13 points and pulled down seven rebounds — featured a statistical aberration that jumped from the postgame box score for Blevins and everyone else:
Montana State forced the Pioneers into an astounding 28 turnovers, and that paved the way to victory much more than its 39 percent shooting or the steep foul trouble that plagued the team for the full 40 minutes.
“This is my third year playing Division I basketball, and I’ve never been involved in a game where there was 28 turnovers by one team,” said Blevins, who was forced to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
“Mentally, they were making mistakes, but just us staying intact (defensively) and forcing it, that was big for us.”
Denver coughed up the basketball 16 times in the first half, but the Bobcats’ 12-point lead at intermission seemed smaller than it should have been. In all, Montana State scored “only” 30 points off of DU’s 28 giveaways.
Coach Brian Fish said his team’s advantage could have been much greater, but the Bobcats struggled to get into a flow offensively and played much of the game without star guard Tyler Hall, who was benched with foul trouble.
It was the Bobcats’ first game in eight days, a layoff that gave Hall the time he needed to heel his gimpy right ankle and get back to full health. Or very nearly.
“I don’t know if anybody’s 100 percent but he’s pretty darn close now,” Fish said of what had been a nagging injury to his best player. “He’s moving, practicing and everything like that. The eight days really helped him. So that’s not a problem.”
But Hall picked up two first-half fouls and sat for 13 minutes before halftime. By the time he fouled out in the second half (he also was charged with a technical foul), Hall had played only 16 minutes and scored just eight points on 3-of-10 shooting.
Additional foul trouble to guard Devonte Klines — and the fact that freshman guard Isaac Bonton had abruptly quit the team last week — left Fish juggling his lineup.
Lassi Nikkarinen, a first-year guard from Finland, played 17 minutes, by far a career high. Benson Osayande, usually one of the last guys off the bench, played 13 minutes.
Even sophomore point guard Harald Frey fouled out, but not before making a series of key plays in crunch time.
The Bobcats led by as many as 10 midway through the second half, but Denver pared its deficit to three when Joe Rosga made a jumper with 2:23 left. In need of a big shot, Frey made a long 3-pointer on MSU’s ensuing possession, then made four consecutive free throws to push the lead back up to nine points with 1:04 remaining.
Frey missed six of his first seven shots but closed the game with a flurry and ended with 20 points, including four 3-pointers.
“Everyone in the country knows Tyler’s our main guy, but the other guys have to step up,” Frey said. “Everyone can’t have a good day always, especially not when you have five fouls — it’s tough to produce points.
“So we needed guys stepping up, and I thought I’d do my part, I guess. I’ve been trying to work on that in staying more tough and staying more aggressive. I thought that was a good time to do it.”
“We’ve asked him to be more aggressive,” Fish said. “We want Harry to take 13 to 15 shots a game; tonight he had 14. I’m not sure if I was an opposing coach I’d want to see Harry get the looks he’s got, because he’s not going to miss that many the second time around. He just kept fighting.”
The win pushed the Bobcats’ record to 7-5 with one more non-league game remaining. They play at Omaha on Thursday, which is a rematch of a game MSU won 89-80 in overtime on Nov. 10 at Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls.
The team will take a short holiday break after the game but will report back for practice on Christmas Day. The Bobcats begin Big Sky Conference play next Thursday at Southern Utah and then travel to Northern Arizona for a game on Saturday.
“You drive a lot of miles on that trip” between Cedar City, Utah, and Flagstaff, Arizona, Fish said. “We’ve got to come out and find a way. But that’s a week away. Thursday’s a big game against Omaha.”