RENO — As the ESPN cameras closed in, Quinton Hooker stepped away.
North Dakota’s peerless leader found his father, Raynard, for a long embrace, tears streaming down both of their faces.
“Dad, I can’t believe it. We actually did it,” the senior exclaimed, as his father’s embrace grew tighter.
Nearby, Corey Baldwin dropped to his knees at center court, sobbing as he kneeled on the Big Sky Conference logo in the middle of the Reno Events Center.
Under the hoop in which UND staged a torrid comeback that will not be forgotten in Big Sky Conference tournament lore, Geno Crandall stood, his recently earned red championship hat turned backward, a piece of the champions’ freshly cut net pinned upon his forehead.
After scoring six points in the final one minute, 52 seconds, including a game-tying bucket with seven seconds left in regulation, Crandall screamed out to anyone within ear shot, ‘I told ya’ll this morning at 10 a.m. we were going dancing!”
The Fighting Hawks are indeed going dancing and the taste of finishing the race like head coach Brian Jones has preached all season certainly is sweet.
North Dakota finished, this time by sprinting to the finish. UND overcame an 11-point second-half deficit that included trailing 81-76 with 52 seconds to play in regulation. Crandall’s layup with seven seconds left tied the game at 81 before Cortez Seales blocked Weber State freshman Jerrick Harding’s game-winning 3-point attempt to force overtime.
In the extra period, Hooker scored six of his game-high 28 points to sew up tournament MVP honors and lead the Fighting Hawks to a 93-89 victory in front of 2,025 on Saturday night. The victory is North Dakota’s 22nd this season and sews up the first NCAA Tournament berth in the schools nine-year Division I history.
“The model of the whole year was finish the race and that’s what we did tonight,” Hooker said. “It was great to see this happen for this program and the community back home. We are so thankful to be in this position.”
Many among the North Dakota faithful believed that Hooker, the Big Sky’s preseason MVP, deserved to be it’s regular-season MVP as well. The dynamic 6-foot combo guard from the Twin Cities led the Fighting Hawks to their most successful season in the D-I era. Saturday, he converted a layup with 38 seconds left in regulation to cut the lead to two and set up Crandall’s game-tying layup. He hit the first shot in overtime to give UND an early advantage, then hit four clutch free throws in the last two minutes of OT to help North Dakota punch its ticket.
Hooker finished with 28 points, five assists, three steals and a block in 44 emotional minutes to earn the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“This program deserves it,” Hooker said. “It took some ups and downs but we put it all together. To do that is something unbelievably special.”
Crandall, UND’s explosive sophomore point guard, showed his All-Big Sky form down the stretch. He scored 12 of his 17 points over the last six minutes of regulation and overtime, including the six-point burst in the last two minutes to force the extra period. He finished with 17 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and a freshly cut net he said he knew was coming when the tournament began on Thursday for the league’s top seed.
“From the start of the year, we had our loss to Weber (in last season’s semifinals) in the back of our minds,” Crandall said. “We knew that even though Eastern Washington finished the regular-season second, we knew Weber would come out and we would get our shot at them in the tournament and get a little payback from last year. Credit to the resiliency and toughness of this team to pull that out in overtime.”
Baldwin, a sharpshooting senior and former junior college transfer who hit his stride at the perfect time in his final season, provided UND with a third option to it’s all-league backcourt of Hooker and Crandall. Baldwin drilled six 3-pointers and scored 18 points in a 95-72 rout of Portland State in the quarterfinals and hit another three 3s in scoring a team-best 16 points to get UND past Idaho and into the championship game.
“We had faith the entire game,” Baldwin said. “We have been down before. Last year, when we lost to Weber (in the Big Sky semifinals in overtime), we wasn’t going to let that moment happen again.”
Baldwin joined Hooker on the all-tournament team. Crandall very well would have too if the ballots weren’t collected with five minutes left in regulation.
“These three guards are as good as anyone in the league,” Jones said. “They make my job easier. They need each other. Some players don’t understand that. Quinton needs Geno. Geno needs Corey. They need one another because that makes their jobs easier. Them to let go and stay in their lane and be the best they can be…when we win, you get your individual shine and that’s happen now.”
Weber State’s season now sits at 19-12. Eleventh-year head coach Randy Rahe said the Wildcats will accept a postseason berth and play in a tournament next week, but did not know which one. The championship game appearance is the seventh in Rahe’s tenure
“We’ve won our share and you lose your share if you do it enough times,” Rahe said. “You are not going to win them all. It’s hard in a league like this to go win a tournament. This team, it’s there third final in four years. I’d like to look around and see how many teams have done that. It’s exciting, it’s challenging and I think it’s one of the most enjoyable things you are going to do is go into one of these games with a chance to win. You can’t be afraid to lose. Our kids are never afraid.”
North Dakota went inside to Conner Avants early and often to begin the game. The smooth 6-foot-7 sophomore scored UND’s first four buckets of the game during a back and forth first five minutes. But Weber State guard Jerrick Harding, a freshman who earned All-Tournament team honors, scored nine of Weber’s first 11 to stake the third seed to an early 11-8 lead.8
Reigning tournament MVP Jeremy Senglin, a first-team All-Big Selection each of the last two years, drilled 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to spark a 26-point night that left him as Weber State’s all-time leading scorer with 2,028 points in his decorated career. Those triples helped the Wildcats to a 20-10 run before the first of three significant UND runs.
Senglin finished with 336 made 3-pointers in his career, the most in league history. His career point total ranks him second in Big Sky history behind only former Idaho State standout Orlando Lightfoot.
Hooker’s first bucket halted WSU’s 13-2 run with 12:20 left in the first half. Hooker’s first 3-pointer cut the lead to six, setting up Baldwin’s late flourish to the first half. The 6-foot-4 senior canned a 3-pointer and was fouled, converting the 3-point play to cut the lead to 31-27. He hit his second of three 3-pointers to slice the lead to 34-32 and his basket two minutes later tied the action at 34 with 4:45 left before halftime.
North Dakota took a 46-42 lead to halftime and led 52-48 with 15 minutes left before Senglin took over. The 6-foot-2 combo guard, who is second in Division I in 3-pointers made with 123 this season, went on a personal 10-0 run that included a transition 3-pointer to break Bruce Collins’ all-time Weber State career scoring record.
“He’s really good in this building and we remember that from last year,” Jones said of last season’s tournament MVP. “He hit a step-back 3 against us to force overtime and was really good in overtime. He’s special.”
Ryan Richardson capped Senglin’s outburst with a 3-pointer that helped Weber turn a 52-48 deficit into a 61-52 lead. Senglin’s free throw shooting and senior Kyndahl Hill’s (21 points and 12 rebounds) powerful play inside helped the reigning tournament champions stretch the lead to 72-61, the largest of the night, with 7:26 left.
“We’ve had close games, we’ve been down in games and the confidence and the toughness that we have, we are never really in doubt we will win,” Crandall said. “When we were down 10, we were looking at each other like we were going to win this game. We just had to figure out how.”
Hooker sparked an 8-0 run that finished with Seales’ final bucket to cut the lead to 72-69 with five minutes in regulation. Hill, who finished 11-of-16 from the free throw line, hit one of two from the stripe on two different occasions to keep the advantage at six, 76-70.
Hooker was fouled on a 3-pointer and hit all three free throws to shave the deficit to 76-73 with two minutes left. Hill hit one free throw before Crandall answered with two from the stripe. The scoreboard read 77-75 with 1:52 to go. Hill had a two-handed dunk and a perfect trip to the line to give WSU the 81-76 lead.
Seales followed two more free throws with the biggest steal of his career, but Hill kept him off the board by rejecting his layup try into the stands. Hooker converted the next possession into a layup through contact to cut it to 81-79 but missed the free throw, something the 90 percent free throw shooter lamented after the game as he carried the trophy around the arena, the net still on his neck.
With an 81-79 lead and 38 seconds left to play, the Wildcats wound 25 seconds off the clock before Senglin got in the lane. His sealing layup attempt went off the bottom of the rim, Crandall corralled the rebound and looked like a blur racing to the other end, converting a finger roll less than four seconds later to tie the game.
“He’s done it all year,” Jones said of his second-team All-Big Sky selection.
Weber had one last try to end the game in regulation as Harding looked like he was open in the corner before Seales exploded to block the fellow southpaw at the buzzer to force overtime.
Once Hooker converted the first bucket of overtime, the momentum belonged to UND. After five minutes more of outlasting the team that has broken their hearts several times before, the Fighting Hawks finally earned the right to be called champions.
The Big Sky’s regular-season champions entered this week’s tournament on a mission, exploding to sizeable first-half leads in wins over Portland State and Idaho to set up a rematch with an old nemesis.
North Dakota has only been in the Big Sky since 2012 but has played Weber State in crucial tournament games three times in the previous four seasons. UND lost to Weber in Ogden in the 2014 championship game, Hooker’s freshman season. That runner-up finished preceded a dismal year that saw UND win just eight games as Hooker couldn’t lift the level of play as a sophomore following the departure of future pro Troy Huff.
UND bounced back for a fifth-place finish last season and rode Hooker’s tournament-record 81 total points to two wins and a spot in the semifinals. Despite 38 points from Hooker, the Fighting Hawks fell in overtime to the Wildcats in last season’s semifinals a night before the Big Sky’s premier program won their fourth championship game under Randy Rahe.
“Weber has knocked us out of this tournament every year so it’s a day for us to exercise our demons in a postseason tournament with these guys,” Jones said. “Beating them three times in a season, that’s hard to do regardless if it’s Weber or not.”
Jones called Saturday’s win the culmination of a two-year process. The Fighting Hawks went on a foreign tour to Europe two summers ago, Crandall’s debut running the show after sitting out during the 8-22 campaign. Avants joined the mix as a talented freshman from Oklahoma while Baldwin transferred from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. Jones added Seales, a talented two-way player who earned the Big Sky’s top reserve honor this season, from Jones’ hometown of Rock Island, Illinois. The development of junior forward Drick Bernstine, who finished with 11 points and nine rebounds Saturday, into a versatile option in the front court, gave Jones three very different options up front when 7-foot junior Carson Shanks is added to the mix.
Late last month, Jones lamented the way he strayed from his desired coaching philosophies in an effort to compete in the Big Sky after the 2014 championship game loss. He returned to his philosophy of recruiting and developing Midwestern high school talent, which culminated in a championship campaign.
“As a coach, this is why we do what we do,” Jones said. “A couple of years ago, I got away from what works for me and what works for North Dakota as far as player. I had to go through that valley as a coach, we had to go through that valley as a program to get to where we are today. I got back to what works for North Dakota and what’s working in the Big Sky.”
Now North Dakota must await its Big Dance fate. The Fighting Hawks are No. 150 in RPI currently after posting a 22-9 record. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has UND as a No. 15 seed taking on Big XII power Baylor in Tulsa.
“This is the way we talked about sending these guys out,” Jones said. “I’m still in awe. I don’t even know what to say. It’s been such a special year that I’m just excited that we get to continue to play and be on the biggest stage of college basketball.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.