For RaeQuan Battle, the moment was both a throwback to his prep basketball playing days, as well as a indication of what he hopes is to come.
The Montana State men’s basketball team was trailing St. Thomas by nine points late in the first half last Saturday when the Bobcats came up with a steal and broke two-on-one. Montana State’s Kellen Tynes lofted a lob pass toward the rim, and Battle elevated to grab the ball with one hand and slam it home over the top of the defender.
RaeQuan dunked on a man so hard the opposing fans couldn't help but 😱 pic.twitter.com/VaLxzOnJAL
— Montana State Men’s Basketball (@MSUBobcatsMBB) December 12, 2021
“That reminded me of my high school days,” Battle said via phone from Bozeman, Montana, this week. “The last two years I haven’t been able to dunk like that. But reliving something I used to do in high school was really cool. I was able to show my athleticism and show I can play above the rim.”
No, Battle may no longer playing under the bright lights of a Power Five conference team, and he’s still trying to get used to the frigid Montana winter. But the Marysville Pilchuck High School graduate’s transfer from Washington to Montana State has his head in a better space, has his game going the direction he wants it to go, and has him relearning what it’s like to be part of a winning team.
Battle was a dominator in high school. The 6-foot-5 guard led Marysville Pilchuck to a school-best fourth-place finish at the 3A state tournament as a senior in 2019, when he was named The Herald’s Boys Basketball Player of the Year. He was considered one of the top 100 recruits in the nation, and he was a key part of a touted Washington recruiting class that was going to take an already-successful Mike Hopkins program to a new level.
But it all went sideways for Battle at Washington. Thought to be the perfect long and athletic guard for Hopkins’ Syracuse-style 2-3 zone defense, Battle found himself in and out of the rotation during his two seasons as a Husky. When he did get on the floor, he was relegated largely to spot-up shooting duty on the offensive end, and he never quite found his shooting stroke. Over two seasons he averaged just 14.8 minutes and 5.1 points per game, shooting 30.1% from the floor. He saw the court in just six of his final 18 games last season for a team that went 5-21.
“It was just a weird situation,” Battle said. “It wasn’t really anything crazy, I just didn’t know why I wasn’t playing. I remember coming off a good game against Oregon (a team-high 19 points) and it was just weird. We had a pretty stacked team when it comes to guards, but it was a weird rotation and the minutes just weren’t there.”
Battle said he maintained a good relationship with Hopkins, but he nevertheless decided to enter the transfer portal after the season ended.
“I had a feeling early on in the season (about transferring), but it wasn’t until I sat down after the season that I really thought about it,” Battle said. “I wanted to look for something new. I also wanted to get away from home a little bit so I could focus on myself. I felt like being able to isolate myself, just focus on school and basketball, would benefit me.”
Battle said the decision to transfer from Washington was a difficult one, considering he and his family were diehard Husky supporters — “When I told my mom she got upset, though she supported me 100% and is now one of the biggest Bobcat fans.” — and he described the transfer process as a humbling experience, as the high-major schools that recruited him out of high school didn’t come calling.
One person who did call, however, was Montana State coach Danny Sprinkle, whose pitch won Battle over.
”Coach Sprinkle said, ‘I love your game, I think you could fit in our system great and we’re trying to be a championship team,’” Battle said. “’We want to take the next step and think you could be that player. It’s not going to be easy, you’re going to have to earn your spot and I’m going to coach you hard. But we want you to be successful.’ That’s what really sold me, and the coaches have followed through on everything they said.”
At Montana State Battle is playing in a slightly faster-paced system, and he’s been given more freedom to put the ball on the floor and try to get to the rim. He’s still feeling his way, averaging 13.1 minutes and 4.7 points per game. But he’s seen a recent uptick, including scoring 16 in Montana State’s victory over North Dakota State on Dec. 7.
Most importantly the Bobcats are winning. Montana State came one victory away from winning the Big Sky Conference tournament last season and earning a berth in the NCAA tournament, and so far this season the Bobcats are 7-4 and considered one of the conference favorites.
“What I learned about myself (through the transfer process) is that I want to win, too,” Battle said. “I was sick of losing. It’s good to be on the winning side of things, and it’s a joy doing it together as a team.”