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UND pulls a stunner, rallies from 19-point deficit to advance in Big Sky tourney

UND's Marlon Stewart looks for an opening against Montana State's Tyler Hall in Tuesday's Big Sky Conference tournament game in Reno, Nev. Skyline Sports photo1 / 2
UND's Geno Crandall drives to the basket against Montana State's Tyler Hall during Tuesday's Big Sky Conference game. Skyline Sports photo2 / 2

RENO, Nev.—The odds were against the University of North Dakota, which trailed Montana State by 19 points with just over 10 minutes to play. When the odds are against you in Reno, sometimes it's best to just walk away.

UND, however, didn't walk away. Instead, the Fighting Hawks overcame the odds as they have done time after time in March the past few years.

On Tuesday, UND rallied for a stunning 76-74 win over Montana State in the first round of the Big Sky Conference men's basketball tournament at the Reno Events Center.

With four major casinos a block away, the Hawks wiped out a 19-point deficit with 10:08 to go—outscoring the Bobcats 31-10 the rest of the way to earn a trip to the quarterfinal round where they will play top seed Montana on Thursday.

UND, somehow, has found ways to make things interesting in March, no matter its regular-season record. In its six seasons as a Big Sky member, the Hawks are 9-3 in league postseason play and 6-1 at the Reno Events Center.

Last season, UND won the league title in Reno, beating Weber State in overtime.

"This is the team I've been waiting to see all year long," said UND coach Brian Jones. "They've had spurts of grittiness and toughness. But they've never quit. They stayed the course."

Behind the play of Marlon Stewart (29 points) and Geno Crandall (18), UND slowly came back against Montana State after falling behind 64-45. Kienan Walter scored the game-winning basket when he grabbed Crandall's deflected shot in the lane and dropped in a soft jump hook shot for a 76-74 lead with six seconds to play.

Montana State, however, didn't call timeout. Instead, the Bobcats' Tyler Hall turned the ball over near midcourt. Crandall came up with the ball and was fouled. He missed the front end of the bonus with 1.1 seconds left, but Montana State couldn't get off a shot.

"Coach drew up a play for Geno," said Walter, who scored 10 points of the bench. "The ball just landed in my hands and I knew I didn't have much time so I flipped it up, just like the jump hooks we practice all the time."

Montana State dominated for 30 minutes. The Bobcats, led by Devonte Klines' 16 points, led 36-21 at one point of the first half. UND's momentum began when Crandall hit a half-court shot at the first-half buzzer.

"They were aggressive and dictated everything," said Jones of Montana State's first half. "We were on our heels. I challenged our guys. When would we fight back?

"At the start of the second half, they took it to us again. But around the 11-minute mark, our guys got it done on the defensive end. And our guys made some huge shots."

After falling behind by 19, UND responded with an 11-0 run. Stewart and Conner Avants (10 points) accounted for all of the points.

Another 10-2 UND run, which included a big 3-pointer from the corner by Dale Jones, tied the game at 68.

Later, Crandall tied the game at 74, converting a 3-point play on a drive to the rim. Montana State couldn't convert on its ensuing possession, setting up Walter's winning basket.

"We were down but a little bit of fight kicked in," said Crandall. "You don't fight like that if you don't believe you can win."

Added Stewart: "It was our want to win the game. Coaches kept believing in us and pushing us. That will just kicked in during the last few minutes"

UND, the No. 8 seed, improved to 12-19 while No. 9 Montana State closed at 13-19.

The Hawks, however, may be short-handed against Montana, which beat UND twice during the regular season. Cortez Seales was limited to 18 minutes due to a back injury while Avants left the game with a groin injury with five minutes to play.

But UND remained the defending champion after the first day of the tournament.

"Coach has been telling us all week that we're the defending champ, so act like it," said Walter.

Wayne Nelson
Nelson is the sports editor of the Herald
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