Bulldogs bull forward with Northern split

M.P. Regan
Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Like the handlebar on an old railroad handcar, the University of Montana Western’s men’s basketball see-sawed, up and down, over the past nine days—while propelling the team forward into an increasingly entertaining and promising season.

“I think we are playing really well right now as a team,” said UMW Head Coach Mike Larsen following his Bulldogs’ split of a Saturday-Sunday home doubleheader in Straugh Gymnasium against Montana State University-Northern—which came five days after the Dawgs’ divided of the spoils in Billings during a Monday-Tuesday twin bill vs. Rocky Mountain College.

“We have to be able to play games on back-to-back days, which is tough,” said Larson, whose team took out Rocky, 73-64, before lapsing to the wrong side of an 83-59 result at RMC the next night.

“But I think we are coming out on that first day and playing really well in everything we are doing— offensively and defensively,” added Larsen, whose Bulldogs sped past MSUN, 89-73, on Saturday, before buckling under a glaring MSUN rally in the second-half during Sunday’s 68-55 setback.

“Now, it’s just a matter of finding that depth of guys up and down the roster, so we can save our legs and play two games in two days.”

The Dawgs (3-3 overall, 2-3 in the Frontier Conference) got deeper, bigger and stronger with the activation in time for last weekend’s games of newcomer Jalen Hodges.

The senior transfer from Florida Tech celebrated his UMW debut on Saturday by scoring 25 points while hitting 10 of 13 field-goal attempts to lead the hosts to a 64 percent shooting rate from field for the game against MSUN (2-3, 1-3).

“He’s definitely a welcome addition to our team. He gives us a dynamic new option to score,” said Larsen of the 6-foot-4-inch Hodges, who uses position and power to beat defenders in the low post.

“Now, we just have to learn as a team how to play together with him. Sunday, I felt like we were trying to play to him instead of just with him,” said Larsen of a game that suddenly got away from UMW following a second-half time out called by MSUN Head Coach Shawn Huse, when UMW led, 34-29.

“That was probably one of those brilliant coaching moves where you just yell at the top of your lungs,” said Huse of the consultation he held during that timeout with his players, who responded by going on a 28-8 run across the next ten minutes of play to take control of the contest.

“To say that I did anything ingenious in terms of Xs and Os would probably be a lie,” laughed the longtime MSUN head coach.

“I think the biggest thing for us to look at,” said Larsen, whose team shot just 35 percent on Sunday, just over half as well as it had the day before against the same opponent it had hit almost two-thirds of its field-goal attempts against the day before.

“Because we have the options we have, we have to learn to play with more pace,” said Larson of his team, which he described as

“an unselfish team that needs to play fast.”

Larsen said his team honored that identity on Saturday, when the Dawgs opened the game with a 13-2 surge that featured scoring contributions from all five Bulldog starters.

“Sunday, we slowed down; we did not play with as much pace,” said Larsen of a game in which is team scored 34 fewer points than it had the day before, when it got off ten more shots.

With his team coming off a four-game week, Larsen hopes to use the coming two weeks, when his team will play just four games total, to get better in practice.

“We basically played six games in 12 days after coming back from Christmas break. So, we haven’t had a lot of time to practice,” said the third-year UMW head coach.

“We’ve been having to jam everything into two practices or just one practice to get ready for some games. So, I’m excited to use these two weeks and these practices to continue our process of getting better every day,” said Larsen, who has called practice his favorite part of coaching.

“You go back six months and what was going on, I think all the coaches in this league have done an amazing job of putting together some tough teams,” said Huse of the challenges he and his coaching colleagues have faced during a pandemic-plagued season in which Frontier teams have seen more of their games cancelled or postponed than played.

“I don’t know how any of us did it. We all worked very hard, and I am impressed with the level of play in the league this season,” said the all-time winningest coach in the history of the MSUN men’s basketball proram.

Next up for the Bulldogs, a trip to Helena to play back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday against Carroll College, which went to the semifinals of the last NAIA men’s basketball tournament in 2019.

“This will be a really big weekend for us,” said Larsen of games against what has been in recent seasons the toughest team in the Frontier Conference.

“We have to go on the road and try to find a win against a tough opponent.”