RENO, Nev.—The Big Sky Conference era for the University of North Dakota's men's basketball is over. During their time in the league, the Fighting Hawks put together an impressive resume for their future colleagues—the teams in the Summit League.
UND's time in the Big Sky ended Thursday, March 8, when top-seed Montana downed the Hawks 84-76 in the quarterfinal round of the Big Sky tournament at the Reno Events Center. UND came in as the defending champion and was attempting to continue its successful run in Big Sky tournament play.
But the 24-7 Griz pulled away in the final three minutes to earn a trip to the semifinal round tonight against Northern Colorado. UND, the No. 8 seed, closed out at 12-20 but ended its Big Sky era with a 9-4 postseason mark—including one league title, one title game appearance and two other trips to the semifinal round..
"We had nothing to lose, honestly," said UND's Geno Crandall, who has had as much success as any Big Sky player since the league brought the tournament to Reno in 2016. "There was no pressure on us. We came out loose and had an excellent game plan. If it was the end of the season, we wanted to go down fighting. We wanted to go down swinging."
And that's what UND did against a team that had more length, depth and experience. UND also was short-handed as starting center Conner Avants missed the game after suffering an injury during Tuesday's 76-74 come-from-behind win against Montana State.
"I couldn't be more proud of our guys' effort and toughness," said UND coach Brian Jones.
UND played loose and fast for 30-plus minutes as they consistently knocked down 3-pointers. Dale Jones hit six three-pointers in the first half as the teams were tied 42-42 at the break.Jones finished with 24 points, 22 in the first half. A defensive adjustment by the Griz at the half made it more difficult for the 6-foot-9 senior to find good perimeter looks in the final 20 minutes.
But UND received scores from Crandall (17 points) and Cortez Seales (22) as the Hawks managed to hang around.
The game's big basket came from Ahmaad Rorie, a 15-footer that gave the Griz a 59-57 lead with 12:10 to go. The Griz stretched that lead to 72-65 before UND's final surge. A Seales basket at 3:24, cut the Montana lead to 74-72 before the Griz closed it out with a 10-4 run down the stretch. A couple of UND turnovers and forced shots didn't help the Hawks.
"They were making tough shots all game, contested fade-aways, guys making threes that normally might not make those shots," said Montana coach Travis DeCuire. "At the end of the day, percentages catch up most of the time. We stuck to the script, played defense the right way and took away shots we knew they could make. Eventually, things worked out for us.
"It was two teams that played with a lot of heart and passion. I just think we punched a little more than they did."
Montana was led by its dynamic guards, Rorie (30 points) and Michael Oguine (23). The Griz shot 49 percent while UND ended at 46. But the Griz had the edge on the boards, 43-28 that led to 13 second-chance points.
In the Big Sky, UND made its mark as a tough tournament out, no matter its regular-season record.
"We wanted to come out and not play on our heels like I thought we did on Tuesday," said Jones. "We came out swinging in those opening four minutes and really set the tone for the game.
"I thought both teams really played at a high level; it was just about a minute-and-a-half stretch late in the game where we took some quick shots and had some miscues that ended up costing us. Montana is too good to do that. They got the separation they needed."
UND has had a history of playing its best basketball in March.
"We finished the season strong," said Jones. "We were playing our best basketball of the season. These were two teams playing at a high level. That's what you want to see."