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Bobcats make history by sweeping Grizzlies in hoops following Brawl beatdown

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BOZEMAN — In Missoula, Danny Sprinkle paced, crouched and sipped out of his water bottle with nervous apprehension, exhaling a sigh of relief when his Bobcats snapped an 11-game losing streak in the Garden City.

And who could blame him? Wins in Missoula or over the Grizzlies have been few and far between for Bobcat basketball since Sprinkle finished up his playing career more than 20 years ago.

In his own element in the arena where he once starred, Sprinkle engaged, argued, inspired, commiserated and exploded throughout an endlessly frustrating stream of whistles that rarely ever let the sellout crowd at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse truly reach a fever pitch.

When Saturday evening’s excruciating whistle fest came to a merciful end, Sprinkle unleashed an aggressive, celebratory fist thrust as his team, and the Montana State athletic department, made history.

RaeQuon Battle elevates for a dunk in the first half. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

It’s been since 2010 that Montana State men’s basketball has swept the rival Montana Grizzlies. It’s been since 1999, Sprinkle’s senior year as a sweet-shooting guard for the Bobcats, that MSU has won all four games against the Griz in men’s and women’s hoops in the same year.

And when the final horn ignited the crowd of nearly 7,000 at Brick Breedin Fieldhouse into the latest celebration in a year-plus span full of them, the Bobcats had their truest of sweeps.

On an evening in which Montana State unveiled its first Big Sky Conference championship football banner since 2012 and it’s women’s basketball team completed yet another sweep of the rival Lady Griz, Sprinkle led his alma mater to another landmark accomplishment.

Montana State’s 72-68 win over Montana meant not only did MSU go 4-0 against the Griz in both men’s and women’s hoops for the first time in 24 years; couple Saturday’s sweep with MSU’s resounding 55-21 football beat down of the Grizzlies in November and the Bobcats own victories over the rival in the three most visible sports for the first time in the long, storied history of the Treasure States’ fiercest rivalry.

“It’s awesome and it starts at the top,” Sprinkle said after his team won its 20th game this season, marking the second consecutive season MSU has reached that benchmark. “It starts with President (Waded) Cruzado and it trickles down to Leon (Costello), who’s the best AD in the country in my opinion. It trickles down, the culture trickles down, the atmosphere, the energy. That’s what Bobcat Nation is.”

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Title XI and also marked the 46th anniversary of Montana State adding women’s basketball.

From 1978 until 2016, MSU only beat Montana 10 times in women’s hoops as legendary Lady Griz head coach Robin Selvig carved out one of the great small-school hoops legacies in college basketball history.

The Bobcat women swept UM for the season for the first time in 1999 and the MSU men followed suit that year. But it took another generation for it to happen again. And it seemed fitting that Sprinkle’s crew was able to seal the deal on an evening when one of the loudest ovations from the crowd came when the Bobcat football team proudly paraded the Great Divide Trophy across the hardwood.

“It was big time, bro,” added sophomore Great Osobor, who hit 12 free throws and scored 14 points. “I really appreciate people showing out for us and we really do this for them.

“Coach always talks about playing for the people before you, playing for the school, playing for the team playing for your brothers. It really means a lot because you know how much it means to the people in the community. The fact that we could do this for them really means a lot to us as players.”

Kola Bad Bear scored 23 points including the game-icing free throws in the final seconds. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

Montana State’s women’s basketball team has made habit of paying homage to those that came before them. Sprinkle has also put a high priority on instilling a reverence for history within his players.

Despite the fact that four of Sprinkle’s five starters are transfers, and all but three of the primary players in MSU’s eight-man rotation played somewhere else before landing in Bozeman, UM associate head coach Chris Cobb said it best earlier this season when he stated that the Bobcats “have been playing for the name on the front of the jersey as much as any team in the Big Sky” over the last two years.

For so long, that’s how you would describe Montana. And while the Griz entered the rivalry rematch on a five-game winning streak, Saturday marked the first time UM head coach Travis DeCuire had ever been swept at the hands of the rival between his four seasons as a Griz record-setting point guard in the early 1990s and his nine seasons as the head coach for his alma mater.

“I don’t like losing in general. Every loss is the same to me,” DeCuire said. “It’s the rival. I understand that. We don’t want to be swept. I don’t want to be swept by anyone.

“It’s not a great taste and hopefully we can get an opportunity to avenge this one.”

RaeQuan Battle symbolizes Sprinkle’s culture as much as any Bobcat. The proud member of the Tulalip Tribe in Western Washington came to the post-game press conference with a custom sewn blanket adorn with ‘Cat logos on one side and beautiful Native American embroidery giving homage to his late grandmother on the other.

Battle struggled to fit in during his brief stint at Washington. Since landing in Bozeman, he’s blossomed under Sprinkle’s tutelage. He was the Big Sky’s top reserve last season and is a prime candidate to win league MVP this season. Saturday, he poured in 19 points and hit the game-sealing free throws to help MSU complete the sweep.

“This sweep means a lot and Bozeman in general, this means a lot to the city,” said Battle, who celebrated his 22nd birthday on Sunday. “You see how many people came out tonight. They wanted to see it in person. That was pretty fun.”

The ability to quickly coalesce and come together has led to landmark accomplishments under Sprinkle, including last season’s breakthrough campaign. A year ago, Sprinkle earned Big Sky Coach of the Year honors by helping MSU to its first Big Sky regular-season title in 20 years, the first trip to the NCAA Tournament for MSU since Sprinkle’s breakout freshman year in 1996 and, following Saturday, the first clean sweep of the Griz in almost a quarter century.

“The entire night was more like thanking the fans,” Sprinkle said. “Close to 7,000 fans, the students, I know how much this means to Bobcat Nation. It’s an emotional game and it’s been a long time. It’s been a long time since we swept them.

“We will see them again. We will see them again in Boise at some point. I think Montana is a tremendous team. They guard. They are going to be disciplined They make you earn it.”

Darius Brown II blows past a Grizzly defender. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

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