Wildcats Break Eight-Year Drought With Win Over MSUB
GNAC Player of the Year Xavier Smith scored 19 points in the victory from Central Washington. Photo by Ron Smith.
GNAC Player of the Year Xavier Smith scored 19 points in the victory from Central Washington. Photo by Ron Smith.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

LACEY, Wash. – No. 5 seeded Central Washington used a 19-point night from senior guard Xavier Smith to advance to the GNAC Men’s Basketball Championships semifinals for the first time in eight years Thursday, scoring a 74-67 victory over No. 4 seed Montana State Billings in the tournament quarterfinals at Marcus Pavilion.

Smith connected on 8 of 15 from the field in the victory, leading a night that saw the Wildcats shoot 51.3 percent from the field for the game. Senior guard David Thompson added 19 points while senior forward Marqus Gilson scored 16 points on 6 of 9 from the field and had a team-high six rebounds.

Montana State Billings was led by senior guard Damen Thacker, who led all scorers with 23 points on 8 of 17 from the field and 7 of 7 from the free-throw line. Junior forward Bilal Shabazz added 13 points as MSUB shot 43.1 percent from the field and was a perfect 15 of 15 from the free-throw line.

With the win, Central Washington (16-8) advances to the tournament semifinals for the first time since 2013 and will face the winner of tonight’s quarterfinal between No. 1 Saint Martin’s and No. 9 Western Oregon. Montana State Billings ends its season with a 13-15 record.

The Yellowjackets jumped out of the gate fast, taking a 7-0 lead on freshman center Emmanuel Ajanaku’s lay-in a minute-and-a-half in. Once the Wildcats got on the board they went on an 11-7 run to make it a 12-11 game on junior forward Matt Poquette’s lay-in. Montana State Billings went right back up six, 18-12 on Thacker’s jumper but CWU came right back and tied it at 20-20 on a pair of Isaiah Banks free throws midway through the period.

The Wildcats went on to score the next six points, building the 26-20 lead on Thompson’s lay-up with 7:07 left. Montana State Billings stayed close, though, using a pair of Thacker free throws to come within one with 3:04 left, but Smith’s pull-up jumper with 1:20 left was the only made shot in a close spell that ended the period as the Wildcats took a 31-28 lead into the locker room.

Central Washington never trailed in the second half but did not pull away until later in the contest. The Wildcats went up 46-38 on Smith’s fastbreak lay-in with 12:29 to go but watched the Yellowjackets score on their next two possessions to come back within four.

Montana State Billings was within 60-56 with 4:32 left when Smith and Thompson connected on back-to-back three-pointers put the Wildcats back up by nine, 65-56, with 3:28 to go. The Yellowjackets came back within four points on three different occasions and cut the lead to three, 68-65, on Thacker’s basket with 1:14 left. Central Washington got the job done at the line, hitting 4 of 4 in the final minute to ice the game.