KANSAS CITY -- The Western Bulldogs weren’t afraid of the big stage.
Guards Shyke Smalls and Dom Robinson combined for 57 points and the University of Montana Bulldogs handled the Louisiana State University Shreveport Pilots, 99-94 on Thursday evening.
“These guys have done it all year,” Bulldogs coach Steve Keller said. “Dom … Shyke … they had 57 between them. Great effort by both of them. We say we got as good of guards as anybody. We just don’t know if we’re able to rebound everybody.”
The Bulldogs (25-7) rebounded on Thursday, beating the longer and taller Pilots 44-38.
As many teams struggled in their first action at the national tournament, Montana Western lit up Municipal Auditorium against a longer, more athletic LSU-Shreveport team, knocking down nine 3-pointers (seven in the first half) and shooting 54 percent from the field. Western took a 7-6 lead and then never trailed again.
And on the other end, the Bulldogs didn’t give up an inch when they manned a Pilots team that featured two 6-foot-8 and 6-6 players. When Western went to a 2-3 zone, the Bulldogs still pestered the Pilots (20-10) and didn’t give up any rebounding advantages.
Robinson was a huge part of that, hitting 6 of 7 3-pointers en route to 32 points. The guard, who won the Frontier’s Newcomer of the Year award, said he had no premonition of his huge performance entering the tournament. In fact, if anything, he thought his shot may be a little wonky.
The Bulldogs' shooting gun, which rebounds and fires passes out to shooters, broke two weeks ago.
“We shoot on it every day after practice, so I was kind of scared,” Robinson said. “We had shoot around this morning and the rims were kind of hard. I don’t know, man. They were going in so I kept shooting them.”
He and the rest of the Bulldogs relished the fact that they don’t appear to be within the same class as some of the other bigger teams at the NAIA tournament.
“We’re always kind if the underdogs, you know,” Robinson said. “When we come on the court and warm up nobody thinks we’re that good. We love each other. That’s why I think we win because of our chemistry.”
LSU-S got a four-point play from Benjamin Batts to cut the lead to seven and then a steal, but the Pilots turned the ball over and Western marched to the free throw line, though Smalls missed two free throws and then Rashard Owens hit a three and cut the lead to four points.
“That ball is like a hot potato late in the game,” Keller said. “You catch it. Look, pivot and look. Make them come to you and then drive and jump stop. We played a little too fast in the end, I don’t like to play that fast.”
Smalls, who finished with 23 points, said Western is unflappable, particularly Robinson, who got his first taste of the NAIA tournament.
The drama didn’t last another play as Smalls made his next two free throws and LSUS never threatened again.
“That’s my guy,” Smalls said. “He’s probably 5-5 and he’s got guys here that are 6-8, 6-9. He doesn’t back down from anybody. He doesn’t play scared. Our team doesn’t play scared. “
The Bulldogs -- the second Frontier team to advance to the tournament's second round, along with Carroll College -- will face No. 1-seed Dalton State Friday at 9:15 p.m. CST. The third team out of the Frontier in the field, Lewis-Clark State, held a 15-point lead on Thursday but couldn't hold on and was eliminated.
“Dalton State is good,” Keller said. “If we shoot the ball we can play with anybody down here. “We have to shoot the ball and rebound the ball. We did both tonight. Great team effort.”