RENO — The Fighting Hawks blitzed Portland State before the up-tempo Vikings even had a chance to blink.
In the opening game of the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference men’s tournament here, top-seeded North Dakota wasted no time making its presence known. The Fighting Hawks hit 14 of its first 18 shots, 19 of its first 25 thanks to crisp ball movement, boundless energy and an initiative to prove a point. By the time Portland State stopped the bleeding, the Big Sky regular-season champions held a 49-23 lead. The game was only 15 minutes old.
Portland State ended the first half on a 12-0 run that stretched to 14 straight as UND cooled off for a seven-minute to cut the lead to 49-37 but the No. 1 seed found its rhythm again. North Dakota hit eight of its next nine shots to push the lead to 30 before cruising the rest of the way in a 95-72 victory to sew up a spot in Friday’s semifinals.
“The first game of the season, they gave us a real whoopin’ (a 99-62 PSU win in Portland to open conference play) and we had that in the back of our minds coming in,” UND senior Corey Baldwin said after hitting six of North Dakota’s 11 3-pointers. “Everybody was focused and dialed in from the start.”
North Dakota moved the ball with incredible efficiency for the first 15 minutes and during the deciding second-half run. The Fighting Hawks finished with 22 assists on 33 made baskets, including seven dimes each for the All-Big Sky backcourt of senior Quinton Hooker and junior Geno Crandall.
“This was the whole season coming together, really, being able to trust one another and knowing where each other is going to be,” Hooker said. “This is the time you have to prove it.”
Portland State’s hyperactive full-court trapping defense has led to lofty point totals, including in PSU’s 99-62 win over UND in Portland to open Big Sky play in December. But the Vikings need to make shots to set up its defense.
UND ensured the Vikings could not by flawlessly executing the first 13 minutes, drilling 15 of its first 19 shots including six of its first eight from beyond the arc. Baldwin scored 12 of his team-high 18 points during the stretch as UND held a 40-19 lead.
“I thought we played with a lot of energy, we played together, we were able to move the ball well,” Hooker said after scoring 17 points. “The first game is always the hardest. They had already played a game, were used to the atmosphere. We did a great job of adjusting and playing together.”
A pair of huge blocks of Conner Avants by PSU junior Bryce Canda sparked PSU’s 12-0 run to end the half. Both blocks led to Brandon Hollins dunks and helped the Vikings set up their press. Portland State held PSU scoreless for the last four minutes of the first half and the first three of the second half to cut the 26-point lead to 49-37.
“We were getting riled up from pressure and we just had to relax,” said Baldwin, who grabbed 10 rebounds for his first double-double. “We knew that was going to happen, they would go on their run so we just had to stay patient.”
Hooker snapped the cold streak with one of his three 3-pointers from the corner on an assist from Crandall. That triple plus Baldwin’s sixth three sparked a spurt in which North Dakota hit eight of its next nine. UND sophomore Cortez Seales, the Big Sky’s top reserve, converted a 3-point play with 7:40 left to give UND a 76-55 lead.
“They’ve done this all year,” UND head coach Brian Jones, the Big Sky Coach of the Year, said. “I can’t explain it. We have won a lot of close games. It’s their chemistry, their connection together, their resiliency. Portland State is extremely talented. They have a lot of weapons offensively, they are athletic, they are fast. I felt they were going to be one of the more dangerous teams in this tournament. ”
A sweet up-and-under finish by Crandall and two free throws by Hooker pushed UND’s lead to 87-57 with 3:53 left, the largest of the game. UND head coach Brian Jones removed his starters but his bench could not handle Portland State’s press; the Viks went on a 9-0 run in less than a minute. Jones reinserted his starters, Hooker hit two more free throws to push it to 91-68 and the starters returned to the bench.
UND reserve Kienan Walter’s huge slam dunk with 1:12 left brought the starters on the bench to their feet and punctuated UND’s second straight resounding performance in the quarterfinals in Reno. Last season, UND strung together a 30-2 run in the first half to pound Idaho State, 83-49.
“I thought it really helped us against Idaho State playing a game because we got a lot of shots up and got comfortable but I thought the bye helped us today because we were just fresher,” Jones said. “The way Portland State plays, you have to be fresh. They are pressing, pressing, pressing. We want to play that way too but if they are going to play that way, it’s going to wear you down. These guys needed the rest, dealing with the end of the season, the stress of that, never been through that, that wears on you mentally and physically so it was good for us.”
Portland State forced 20 UND turnovers and put constant pressure on the top seed for the middle 20 minutes of the game. But the Vikings shot just 40 percent, including making just 3-of-21 3-pointers, 1-of-11 from beyond the arc after halftime.
The loss finishes a what could have been sort of season for PSU. The Vikings lost five overtime games after a 4-2 start in league play. Portland State lost 10 of 14 down the stretch to finish 15-17 after an 11-6 start.
“North Dakota came out, shared the ball, hit about 12 of their first 14, just unbelievable,” PSU head coach Tyler Geving said. “They just couldn’t miss. I don’t know if our defense was that bad. Credit to them. They came out, were focused and shared it. Credit to us cutting it to 12 but I don’t know if we had much juice after the first 10 minutes. North Dakota certainly came to play.”
The top seed with gun for a spot in the championship after a quick turnaround. North Dakota will play the winner of Idaho and Montana in the first semifinal game Friday at 5:35 p.m. PST
“That’s why we schedule the way we do,” Jones siad. “We played in a preseason tournament where we played three games in three days to prepare for this. Our hope is our depth will be really valuable these next three days because we are going to need it. We won’t be able to play seven guys. We will have to play eight, nine, 10.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.