Big Sky Conference

Northern Colorado wins first NCAA postseason tournament in Big Sky history


The Bears made history Friday night in Greeley.

The Northern Colorado men capped a momentous season with one of the most significant wins in the history of the school. UNC earned a 76-71 win over Illinois-Chicago in the championship of the Tournament. The victory, which came in front of a Bank of Colorado Arena record crowd of 3,198, gives the Bears a school-record 26 wins.

The tournament win makes the Bears the team from the Big Sky Conference to win an NCAA postseason tournament. Weber State and Northern Arizona previously played in the championship of the CIT but both lost.

Northern Colorado guard Andre Spight (11)/by Domenic Grey

Andre Spight finished his one and only season at UNC with a crescendo, scoring 23 points to finish his senior year with 855 points, breaking former Idaho State standout Dave Wagnon’s 53-year-old single-season Big Sky scoring record. The Big Sky’s Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Arizona State finishes the season with a scoring average of 22.5 points per game. He hit 128 3-pointers, four short of former Weber State guard Jeremy Senglin’s single-season mark.

Junior Jordan Davis poured in 29 points, helping UNC become the first team in the history of the Big Sky to score more than 3,000 points in a single season.

When Jeff Linder took over the program last season, the Bears were upside down in controversy. Former head coach B.J. Hill had just been fired amid a slew of NCAA violations that would eventually land UNC on probation. The Bears mandated a self-imposed ban from the postseason.

Northern Colorado forward Tanner Morgan (20)/by Domenic Grey

In his first season as a head coach, Linder elected to redshirt seniors Tanner Morgan and Anthony Johnson while Spight also sat out due to NCAA transfer rules. The Bears did not participate in the Big Sky Tournament in Reno.

This season, the combination of Spight and Davis combine with the emergence of Jonah Radebaugh, the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year two years ago, the solid play of Morgan, Johnson and Chaz Glotta and the contribution of true freshman Jalen Sanders led to a season to remember.

The Bears posted 9-4 non-conference record that included signature wins over South Dakota and at Wyoming plus a close call in a 94-91 loss at UNLV. Northern Colorado began the Big Sky season by sweeping eventual second-place Idaho and third-place Eastern Washington at home. A three-game losing streak followed, including losses at Montana State and Montana along with Weber State in Greeley.

Northern Colorado guard Andre Spight (11)/by Domenic Grey

Halfway through the conference season, UNC sat at 5-5 in conference play following an 88-79 loss to the league champion Griz. An overtime loss at Weber State dropped UNC to 7-6 before the Bears hit their stride.

Spight dropped 41 points in an 86-63 win over Montana State, one of three 40-point outings and his fifth 30-plus point game after February 3, sparking a stretch that saw the Bears win 13 of their final 16 games.

In the Big Sky Tournament, the fifth-seeded Bears dismantled Northern Arizona and destroyed Weber State to earn a spot in the semifinals and a third shot at Montana.

In one of the all-time classic games in the history of the league tournament, Montana needed a miraculous rally in the final 57 seconds of regulation to shave a six-point lead and force overtime. In OT, Spight’s runner at the buzzer was just long, helping Montana secure a championship-game berth with a 91-89 victory.

Rather than dwell on the heartbreak, Northern Colorado ripped off four CIT wins to secure the trophy. UNC beat Drake (81-72), at San Diego (86-75), Sam Houston State 99-80 behind 40 points from Spight and Illinois-Chicago on Friday.

Northern Colorado guard Jordan Davis (0)/by Domenic Grey

The Bears ripped off a 14-2 run to take a 35-26 halftime lead. UNC held a double-digit lead for a majority of the second half, stretching its lead to as many as 16 points with 7:33 remaining at 65-49.

Illinois-Chicago (20-16) began chipping away at its deficit over the next few minutes, pulling within single digits with just under five minutes to play. The Flames silenced a raucous UNC crowd with a 14-4 spurt over the next three minutes with a layup by Marcus Ottey bringing UIC within a point at 71-70 with 2:06 left on the clock.

Davis answered on the ensuing possession with a layup before a dunk by Jalen Sanders lifted UNC to a 75-70 advantage with 46 ticks remaining. UIC would miss its final five shots of the game as the Bears held on for the monumental victory.

Photos courtesy of Domenic Grey.

Domenic can be followed on Twitter @JMCDomGrey & Instagram @greyphotography1.

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About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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