RENO, Nevada — North Dakota has had a turbulent, haphazard season on the heels of the best Division I season in school history. But UND has had as much success in Reno as any team in the Big Sky Conference.
In the opening round game of the Big Sky Tournament on Monday, North Dakota fought with the heart of champions.
After a conference season filled with shooting struggles and disappointments very similar to UND’s, ninth-seeded Montana State found its shooting stroke early on and appeared it would cruise to a much-needed victory to snap a downward spiral. MSU hit 13 3-pointers in 26 attempts, held a decisive advantage on the glass and in second chance points to build a 19-point lead with 11 minutes, 24 seconds left in Tuesday’s tournament opener.
But Marlon Stewart, Geno Crandall and the Fighting Hawks refused to submit. Stewart scored 14 of his 17 second-half points in the final 10 minutes of the game during a 29-point effort, Crandall hit a half-court shot at the halftime buzzer and converted a 3-point play to tie the game in the final minute and the reigning champions finished the game on a 31-10 run capped by Kienan Walter’s tip-in with seven seconds left to earn a 76-74 win and advance to face top-seeded Montana in Thursday’s first quarterfinal.
“This is the team I’ve been waiting to see all year long,” UND head coach Brian Jones said. “They’ve had spurts of grittiness, toughness and we’ve been in so many close games. Like Montana State, we just haven’t come out on top. But this group have never quit this entire season.
“We’ve had a lot of success in this building and we should have some confidence because we’ve played here and I think that factored in down the stretch.”
After falling behind by 19, the No. 8 seed slapped down a 17-2 run that included 11 points from Stewart to cut the Bobcat advantage to 66-62 with four minutes to play. Stewart’s final bucket, a 3-pointer with 3:04 left, trimmed the lead to 68-65. Dale Jones an Iowa graduate transfer, hit 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to give UND its first lead, 71-70 with 2:13 left.
“It’s difficult at times to stay in it but it was our will at the end of the game that got us here,” Stewart said. “The coaches kept believing in us, kept pushing us and telling us it wasn’t over. It’s win or go home and that will kicked in in the last 11 minutes. I’m proud of our guys.”
With the score tied at 74 after Crandall’s 3-point play with 1:06 left, MSU All-Big Sky junior Tyler Hall missed a 3-point try — his first touch and only touch the final four minutes of the game — with a hand in his face. UND assumed possession with 36 seconds left and isolated their All-Big Sky point guard.
With seven seconds left and the shot clock about to expire, Crandall shot a contested mid-range jump shot that missed. But Walter tipped the ball in to give UND the lead for good. On the next play, Crandall stripped Hall to seal the win and eliminated MSU.
“We have been here no matter the situation we’ve been in,” Crandall said. “We were down and fight kicked in but you don’t fight like that unless you really believe you can win. Credit to our guys for picking up and pulling together.”
MSU head coach Brian Fish has preached for the last month of the improvements he’s seen in his team despite a skid that has seen the preseason contenders fall to the ninth seed entering this week’s Big Sky men’s basketball tournament.
A team led by Hall, the preseason league MVP was picked to finish fourth in the Big Sky by the conference’s coaches lost five games by a single possession during a stretch that saw the team lose 12 of 14 after its first 4-0 Big Sky start in 13 years.
On Tuesday in the opening game of the men’s Big Sky Tournament, MSU hit its first three 3-pointers and eight in the first half. As Fish has predicted all February, made shots ignited his team’s energy and the Bobcats used that influx to crash the offensive glass.
Zach Green’s second 3-pointer gave the Bobcats the 19-point lead. MSU was 13-of-26 from beyond the arc at that moment. MSU missed 12 of its last 14 shots down the stretch in an epic collapse that means MSU finishes a season that started with 11 wins in their first 16 with a 13-18 overall record.
“As a coach, you do a lot of self analyzing of everything,” Fish said. “You have spurts where it goes well and spurts where it doesn’t go well. Looking back on it, it will take a couple weeks here to think about it, but looking back on it, it wasn’t a gouge, it was the paper cuts.
“The team kept fighting, they kept coming. We sold a message of buying in and playing hard and doing exactly what we asked them to do. Tonight, ok, six-game losing streak, you didn’t see a team out there that played like a six-game losing streak. You saw a team that left everything out on the floor.”
Stewart, a native of Rock Island, Illinois — the same hometown as UND head coach Brian Jones, North Dakota forward Cortez Seales and MSU’s Hall — not only spurred his team on the victory with his offense but also largely negated his old high school rival defensively.
Hall took just two shots in the final eight minutes of the game and the crucial final turnover on his only touch of the final four minutes. Hall has won many showdowns with his old friends, but this time Stewart, a Creighton transfer, had the last laugh.
“It’s always motivating to go against him,” Stewart said. “Now, this is what we dreamed of. This is what we love to do.”
“He thought he was at the playground, at the park back in Rock Island,” Jones joked.
Hall hit three 3-pointers and scored 11 points, but the second-team all-league pick did not score a point the final 17:29 of the game. MSU junior Devonte Klines scored a team-high 16 points and led MSU with five of the Bobcats’ 19 assists. Junior Keljin Blevins grabbed 10 rebounds and sophomore point guard Harald added nine boards to go with 10 points as MSU owned a 43-33 advantage on the glass.
Crandall scored 13 of his 18 points in the first half, including a half-court heave at the buzzer that helped the Fighting Hawks enter halftime down 40-33 despite giving up eight 3-pointers and 14 second-chance points.
UND’s focus now shifts to the Griz, a team that won 16 of 18 conference games to win their sixth outright league title in school history. Montana hung 109 points on UND in a 30-point win in Missoula, then gutted out a 72-67 win in a much slower paced affair in Grand Forks a month later.
“When we got in this league, I wanted to study two teams: Weber State and Montana because of how they have been able to sustain success year in and year out,” Jones said.. “We are going to compete and do whatever we can to win that game but because of their depth and their size, they are a team that can go on to win a game in the tournament, which is different for our league.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.