North Dakota survived an upset bid against the last-place team in the Big Sky Conference on the first day of the league’s post-season tournament. While surviving Southern Utah’s feverish try, UND also got a chance to acclimate to the neutral atmosphere at the Reno Special Events Center.
During Thursday’s second Big Sky Tournament quarterfinal, North Dakota looked right at home. The Fighting Hawks played with passion on defense and moved the ball flawlessly on offense from the outset, slicing Idaho State’s matchup defense like a knife and rolling past the fourth-seeded Bengals with an 83-49 victory.
“Playing on Monday, that was the biggest advantage for us,” said UND junior guard Quinton Hooker, the Fighting Hawks’ leading scorer who finished with 13 points, one of six UND players who scored in double figures. “Everybody was a little more comfortable, calm. Shoot around this morning was great. We moved the ball really well and that goes with being comfortable.”
North Dakota put together a 22-1 run over a span of more of five minutes, 37 seconds take a 40-10 lead with four minutes to play in the first half. The run swelled to 30-3 as Idaho State missed 14 straight field goals and UND never took its foot off the pedal. The Fighting Hawks led 46-17 at halftime and cruised from there. The final margin marked the most lopsided in the history of the Big Sky Tournament.
“I thought we were tight on the opening night and I thought we came out more loose, a little bit more confident today,” UND head coach Brian Jones said. “At this morning’s shoot around, the energy was good, the confidence was high, the ball was going in a lot. The voices were going even though it was early in the morning. We won the game this morning at 8:30 because our focus was there, our urgency was there, our confidence was there.”
Idaho State backed into the fourth seed and the first round bye that goes with it. ISU lost 82-68 to in-state rival Idaho in its season finale but UND’s 89-82 loss to Montana State in Bozeman ensured Idaho State would secure the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye.
After spending three days in Reno watching the tournament’s first few rounds and enjoying the entertainment the Biggest Little City in the World has to offer, the Bengals never looked comfortable.
“We felt good about ourselves and we are united but sometimes adversity can divide a little bit and we didn’t play well,” said ISU head coach Bill Evans, the Big Sky Coach of the Year who has never defeated UND in his 21 seasons as a head coach. “There might be something to that. I’ve had guys tell me that playing a first round game and win can really help you and that’s what they did. They had a hard time with Southern Utah (an 85-80 UND win) in their first game and we had trouble in our first game.”
ISU hit four of its first 10 shots during the first five minutes but missed all but two of their next 15 attempts. Ethan Telfair, the Newcomer of the Year and the Big Sky’s leading scorer against conference opponents, missed seven of his first nine shots and 15 of his 20 overall, finishing with 17 points, nearly seven below his average against Big Sky opposition this winter.
“He’s such a multi-dimensional player that if you don’t try to take up his space, he’s just too talented,” Jones said. “He is so creative with the ball and gets other guys involved. He had a big first game against us but we made him work for it today. That’s all you do against great players.”
Idaho State fell behind by 10 six minutes into the game on an Adam McDermott 3-pointer. The deficit reached 20 by the time the game was 12 minutes old thanks to a Drick Bernstine dunk. By the time Hooker converted a layup with 4:06 in the first half, the lead was 30.
“We came in ready to play, had good energy the last couple of days but they came out and smacked us,” said ISU senior forward Ben Wilson, who finished with eight rebounds and six rebounds. “They punched us in the face and we could not catch up. Full credit to them. They have been a bogey side for us all season. This is a very disappointing way to go out but they certain deserve to win.”
After halftime, Idaho State came out in full-court press that forced four UND turnovers but the Bengals committed four miscues themselves. At one point ISU used an 11-0 run capped by a Telfair 3-pointer to cut the UND lead to 17 points, the first time the deficit was under 20 since the 7:52 mark of the first half.
But UND closed strong as Bernstine helped the Fighting Hawks control the possession count with a Big Sky Tournament-record 11 second half rebounds. Bernstine’s 21 total rebounds tied the all-time high mark held by Weber State’s Jimmy Watts, Idaho State’s Steve Hayes and Nevada’s Greg Palm. UND won the battle of the glass, 55-31.
“My team played great defense and the ball was literally landing in my hands,” Bernstine said. “Most of that goes to my teammates playing great defense.
All told, Idaho State shot just 26.8 percent, including making just six of its 28 attempts from beyond the arc. ISU scored 32 points in the second half and made four 3-pointers but the deficit was too great.
UND shot 46.7 percent overall despite making 10-of-26 after halftime. McDermott hit his first five 3-point attempts and finished with a team-high 16 points. Bernstine chipped in 14, Hooker scored 13 and freshman Geno Crandall notched 12 points as the Fighting Hawks put six scorers in double figures. Cortez Seales and Corey Baldwin each chipped in 10 points.
“A lot of times, people ask what is wrong with you and what was wrong with us was North Dakota,” Evans said. “I said going into this thing that they were a team that could win this tournament and I still think they can. They are a really good team.”