On the opening night of Big Sky Conference play, North Dakota ran into a buzz saw in the City of Roses.
That night of December 29, a week of travel struggles due to severe winter weather culminated in Portland State nabbing 19 steals, forcing 26 turnovers overall and running away from UND, 99-62.
Two nights later, PSU lost at home to Northern Colorado, the only team among the Big Sky’s 12 members not eligible for this week’s post-season tournament. The Vikings have been competitive with all the league’s top teams. Portland State ran over Montana at home only to lose by five to Montana State two nights later. The Viks took Sacramento State, Eastern Washington, Weber State and Montana State to overtime, three of the contests coming on the road and all four resulting in losses by a total of 14 points.
Meanwhile, North Dakota bounced back from that embarrassing blowout to put together one of the best seasons in program history. UND won 14 of its remaining 17 games, including a payback win over Portland State Saturday afternoon in Grand Forks to earn its first Big Sky title and the top seed in the tournament. UND’s other league losses came at Montana, at No. 9-seed Northern Arizona and Thursday at home to seventh-seeded Sacramento State.
The Grizzlies shot out to a 5-1 start in Big Sky play that included wins over Weber State, Idaho, Eastern Washington and North Dakota before a collection of issues cropped up. UM endured a four-game losing streak to fall to 5-5 in league. A 90-84 win over Montana State in Missoula sparked a three-game winning streak but UM lost to Sac State for the first time in the regular season and lost to Montana State for the first time since 2010 down the stretch. The Griz rallied to sweep Weber State and Idaho State to post an 11-7 league record, good enough for the No. 5 seed. The 16-15 Grizzlies play fourth-seeded Idaho on Thursday.
Weber State suffered a similar late-season slide as Montana. The Wildcats bounced back from a 5-6 non-conference record to win 12 of 13 games, including starting league play 9-1. But the defending BSC champs lost five of seven down the stretch, including to North Dakota, Eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana consecutively. In a game for the third seed, Weber State posted a 76-67 win over Montana State in Ogden Saturday. The Wildcats won 12 league games to earn the No. 3.
The Idaho Vandals started 1-3 in league play and the MSU Bobcats stumbled to a 1-4 start. The Vandals rallied for 12 wins in their final 15 to earn the No. 4 seed. MSU won 10 of 12 before Saturday’s defeat to enter the final Saturday of the season in the hunt for the No. 3 seed. Instead, the 11-7 Bobcats will take the No. 6 seed and play Tuesday against Southern Utah.
Eastern Washington is the only team in the league’s top half that showed much consistency in its final results until stumbling and losing 76-61 at Northern Arizona Saturday afternoon. The loss in Flagstaff snapped six-game winning streak and cost the Eagles a share of the league title. Still, winning 13 league contests is good enough for the No. 2 seed. EWU’s other four losses: to Montana at home early when the Griz were playing well, at Weber State by three points, at Montana State by one point in overtime and by nine at North Dakota in early February.
The fact that the title race and the top eight spots all came down to the final day of the season shows the margin for error in this season’s Big Sky Conference race has been razor thin. And with the league tournament beginning on Tuesday, the battle for the Big Sky’s NCAA Tournament seems to be wide open.
“This conference tournament is going to be really scary because every team in this league has at least one and sometimes two guys who can really go,” UND head coach Brian Jones said last week. “When you get down to a neutral site setting on a floor most of us have only played a few games in, it’s anybody’s to win.”
Last season, Jones’ UND team finished 10-8 in league, a game back of the No. 4 seed and the first-round bye that went with it. This season, five teams earn first-round byes because of Northern Colorado’s self-imposed postseason ban. Last March in the Big Sky’s first neutral site tournament in Reno, Nevada, UND fought hard to get past No. 12-seed Southern Utah in the first round on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Idaho State, the No. 4 seed, sat at the Reno Events Center taking in the action and gathering postseason awards. Head coach Bill Evans was named the league’s Coach of the Year after leading ISU to 11 league wins and one of its best seasons in a generation. Explosive point guard Ethan Telfair was named the league’s Newcomer of the Year and a first-team All-Big Sky guard after scoring 30 or more points seven times down the stretch to boost the Bengals.
None of that mattered. The already acclimated Fighting Hawks blitzed the Bengals in the first game of Thursday’s quarterfinals. UND went on a 30-2 run to build a 28-point halftime lead en route to an 83-49 victory to earn a spot in the semifinals. An entire body of work evaporated in a little more than two hours for the Bengals.
“This thing boils down to three or four games in March,” Evans said last week. “It really doesn’t matter what we do in January and February. Certainly I want to do a lot better than we did this season but it boils down to three or four games in March. The best team playing the best at that particular time is going to represent our league in the NCAA Tournament.”
UND’s rout of ISU proved to be the only upset during the final three days. No. 10 Sac beat No. 7 Montana State in the first round, No. 8 Portland State took Weber State to overtime in the quarterfinals and Idaho pushed Montana in the semis but the bracket was chalk otherwise. The top-seeded Wildcats edged out No. 2 seed Montana 62-59 in last season’s championship game.
This season if the seeds hold, UND will take on an Eastern Washington led by presumptive league MVP Jake Wiley. The 6-foot-7 graduate transfer averaged 25.3 points and 10.2 rebounds per game in league to help EWU become the first 20-win team in the conference this season. Last season, Weber center Joel Bolomboy and Montana center Martin Breunig proved to be key factors in their teams’ advancement. Wiley and the Eagles will hope to continue the trend.
“I say I keep my guys in the moment all the time and then no moment is really all that different,” EWU head coach Jim Hayford said. “That’s easier said than done if you know you win that game, you go to the NCAA Tournament or you win this game and you will be a conference champion. But it’s the only way I know how to coach and the only way I’ve seen success as a coach.
Evans’ Bengals have not been able to recover from the UND tournament loss. A year after its breakthrough campaign, ISU won just three league games and enters the tournament on an eight-game losing streak. The 10-seeded Bengals’ only wins came over UNC, NAU and Southern Utah. ISU takes on seventh-seeded Sac State on Tuesday.
The 11th-seeded Thunderbirds join the Bengals as the only doubtful tournament winners. SUU managed to sweep NAU this season and won at Northern Colorado to move to 2-0 early on. But a team with just 10 scholarship players and a first-year head coach in Todd Simon lost 15 out of 16 leading up to the tournament.
“We wanted our learning curve to be steep,” Simon said last week. “As it gets to the end of the season with as many freshmen as we have, we want to be at our best toward the end of the season.
“There’s new life when the conference tournament comes and that helps us continue our process.”
NAU started conference play with consecutive losses to SUU, North Dakota, Northern Colorado and Sacramento State before shocking Portland State in Flagstaff on a game played on a Monday night due to the precarious travel situation in and out of PDX in late January. Since a home sweep of UNC and UND the final weekend of January, NAU has been a much-improved squad, pushing Weber State in a six-point loss in Ogden, beating Montana State in Flagstaff and handing Sac State one its four home losses this season. After a 1-6 start, NAU posted a 6-12 record to earn the No. 9 seed.
“Having a neutral site where everyone qualifies allows you as a coach to develop at a different pace with your ball club,” NAU head coach Jack Murphy said last week. “You are not putting the pressure on them to qualify for the conference tournament, we have to win this game to qualify. Instead, we know we are going to be there and we know that if we have incremental improvement, which I think we’ve had throughout conference.
“Once you hit Reno, you should be in a pretty good spot maybe not to win the whole tournament but to challenge in the first round, get a win there and then let the cards fall where they may after that.”
Portland State certainly would be justified in wondering what might’ve been. The deep, talented Vikings posted a 7-4 non-conference record, best among Big Sky teams. PSU started 4-2 in league play, including the 88-79 win over Montana at the Stott Center in Portland, a game in which PSU led by as many as 26 points. But the loss to MSU two nights later started a four-game slide that included an 80-77 overtime loss at Sacramento State and a heartbreaking 130-124 loss at Eastern Washington in triple overtime.
PSU’s only league wins since beating the Griz came over Idaho State, Southern Utah and NAU at home. PSU lost 96-93 in overtime to Weber State and 92-90 in OT at Montana State in back-to-back deflating defeats. The Vikings have lost nine of 12 since beating the Griz. The Vikings are the No. 8 seed and play NAU in the men’s tournament opener on Tuesday.
“I think we can truly play with anybody in the conference but we can lose to anybody in the conference too,” PSU longtime assistant head coach Jeff Hironaka said. “That’s been the season so far.
“We’ve played everybody close. We have played four overtime games and lost all four. We lost to Montana by three in Missoula. I know we are physically capable of doing it. But down the stretch, you have to make the big plays. If we can somehow get ourselves into a situation where we can make a few big plays…it does take a little luck at this stage of the game but just like anybody, I think we can go in there and win the tournament just like anybody else.”
Sac State stumbled to an 0-3 start that included an overtime loss to North Dakota at home. The Hornets have provided one of the toughest matchups in the league since due to a starting lineup that sports a veteran front line of 6-foot-7 junior Justin Strings, 6-7 senior Nick Hornsby and 6-11 senior Eric Stuteville. Sac State swept Montana and handed Weber State a 77-74 loss that started WSU’s downward spiral. Sac also denied UND the title with 57-53 in Grand Forks Thursday.
“When we started off 0-3, I told them, ‘We aren’t going to win the league, don’t care what seed we are, let’s just win as many games as we can so we can get our team right for the tournament the beginning of March,’” Sac head coach Brian Katz said last week. “We don’t need motivation to go win. Our guys want to win every game we play. I feel like we are playing really well right now.”
Montana and Montana State’s seasons have followed opposite arcs. At one point, UM was 5-1 in league play while MSU was 1-4. Since then, Montana went 7-6 including a 78-69 loss to MSU in Bozeman as the Bobcats snapped a 13-game losing streak to the rival Griz.
“Anything can happen,” Montana third-year head coach Travis DeCuire said. “For us, it’s more just going into the tournament with confidence and be ready to play whoever it is in front of us.”
Montana State’s 1-4 conference start was a part of a free fall that saw MSU drop 10 of 11 games to sit at 6-12 overall. Since a 95-90 loss to UND at home, Montana State put together one of the best stretches in the league, winning 10 of 13, including a pair of five-game winning streaks. MSU won 11 league games, its most since 2010 and take the sixth seed into the tournament.
“When I was in the Pac 12 (as an assistant at Oregon), you could walk into the tournament and you’d be playing for seeding in the NCAA tournament and when you walk into a tournament where one team is going to represent the league in the NCAA Tournament, it changes everything,” MSU third-year head coach Brian Fish said. “It’s not much about preparation. It’s about hoping a couple of bounces go your way.
“What you are going to find out in a three-game tournament if you are lucky enough to get three games is you are going to play great in one, average in one, bad in one and you have to figure out how to win all three.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and attributed. All Rights Reserved.