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Montana Tech's championship run six years in the making

Posted at 7:06 PM, Mar 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-01 21:06:08-05

BUTTE — For Adam Hiatt, it began with "Year Zero" in 2016 when his first season as Montana Tech's men's basketball head coach saw the Orediggers win just one conference game.

Back then, Hiatt was more focused on building culture than piling up wins. And, six years later, that early investment paid off in spades for Tech.

Senior guard Drew Huse hit a go-ahead 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the Frontier Conference Tournament title game against Carroll College on Monday night at the PE Center, lifting the Orediggers to a 62-61 victory over the Saints to lock up an automatic bid to the NAIA National Tournament and give Tech its first tournament championship since the 1998-99 season.

"Not a lot going on in your mind at that moment cause it happens so fast," Huse said on Tuesday. "I was debating whether to shoot it as a set shot or to jump high like a pull up. That was the only thing going on in my mind at the tie. And then when I released it, I kind of knew that it was going in."

That split-second decision from Huse put Tech in territory it hadn't been in this millennium. It also gave the Orediggers back-to-back thrillers in the postseason as Tech beat Western in the waning seconds of the Frontier semifinals off a layup from Sindou Diallo with three ticks remaining.

"It was a Hollywood ending," Hiatt said. "You can't even script that if you were trying to make a movie for it. But from a strategic standpoint, our objective was that we just wanted to compete. Match their level of energy, their toughness. I felt like we did that all night."

Since that lackluster one-win season in 2016, Tech bought into Hiatt's philosophy and steadily improved every year. Four conference wins in 2017, six in 2018, 10 in 2019 and 12 in 2021.

With a talented core of seniors returning this year and the addition of Montana State transfer Caleb Bellach, Hiatt knew that his team was in store for a special season. But it was a loss in the preseason that truly let him know the Orediggers would be a force in the Frontier.

"Honestly, it's when we went down and played Houston," Hiatt said of Tech's 71-58 loss to the then No. 13 Cougars and its head coach Kelvin Sampson, who got his start in coaching at Tech. "They are an elite team. Coach Kelvin Sampson is a Hall of Fame coach, one of the best to ever do it. And his teams play like champions. And that was a transformational experience for us."

From there, the Orediggers would go on to post an 11-2 conference record in the regular season, its only losses coming to Carroll with whom Tech shared the regular season title.

But with the national tournament approaching, Tech is hoping that they still have plenty of basketball games left to be played.

"We're not done," Diallo said. "We're gonna try and make it as far as possible and we're gonna try and win Nationals 100 percent. If we just continue to focus on us and do what we do, we could win the whole thing."