GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The Big Sky Conference is shaping up to be an exciting race to the finish, and fans got a taste of what can be expected come March on Thursday night in Grand Forks.
Inside ‘The Betty’, the North Dakota Fighting Hawks and Eastern Washington Eagles squared off with the second spot in the conference standings on the line. The winner would move into sole possession of second place, and remain within striking distance of the Weber State Wildcats.
At least on paper, the stars of the show were undoubtedly Jacob Wiley and Quinton Hooker. Wiley, who was the College Court Report Co-Player of the Week for January 16 – 22, and Hooker, who was the CCR Player of the Year last season, were the two most well-known players in the contest.
However, it was a lesser-known guard who would step up in a huge way off the bench to help lead the Fighting Hawks to the win.
Cortez Seales scored a season-high 21 points in 33 minutes off the bench, and North Dakota used a 53-point opening half to roll to the 95-86 win over the Eagles.
On a night where the University of North Dakota recognized their Aerobatics team for winning nine (NINE!) straight national championships, the Fighting Hawks came out looking to ensure the night wouldn’t be spoiled.
Drick Bernstine opened the game with a jumper for the Fighting Hawks, giving them a 2-0 lead in the first 20 seconds of the contest. That was a sign of things to come for the home side. as they led for all but 13 seconds in the second half.
With 14:45 to play in the opening half, Eastern Washington would knot things up at 11-all on a layup from Bogdan Bliznyuk. That was the last time the teams would be tied in the opening half, as North Dakota took over and got the fans inside ‘The Betty’ behind them.
A 15-0 run that spanned just over three minutes blew the game wide open, and the Fighting Hawks held a 29-13 when all was said and done. North Dakota maintained the lead throughout the first half, and took a 53-45 lead into the locker room.
Eastern Washington came out of the gates in the second half looking to erase their deficit, and they did just that. An 11-2 run to open the half, capped off by a dunk from Wiley, gave the Eagles a slim 56-55 lead.
They would hold the lead for a grand total of 13 seconds, before North Dakota would retake the lead for good on a layup from Hooker.
Seales hit a free throw shortly thereafter, and Carson Shanks threw down a dunk to give the Fighting Hawks a 60-56 lead with 12:10 left to play.
North Dakota would stretch their lead to as many as 12 points in the second half, thanks to a jumper from Hooker with just over five minutes left in the game. From there, they would cruise to the 95-86 win over the Eagles.
It was a big night for both Quinton Hooker and Cortez Seales, as both set new season highs in the win. Hooker scored a game-high 35 points to go along with 5 rebounds and 3 steals, while Seales added 21 points off the bench in the win.
Geno Crandall (14 points) and Conner Avants (10 points) also scored in double-figures for North Dakota.
Not to be overshadowed, Jacob Wiley put up another double-double for the Eagles. He scored a team-high 33 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in the loss. Wiley finished the game shooting 11-of-17 from the field.
Bogdan Bliznyuk added 18 points in defeat.
With their win and the loss suffered by Weber State tonight, the North Dakota Fighting Hawks (14-8, 9-3) are alone in second place in the conference, and are just a half-game out of first. They will look to take another step forwards on Saturday when they welcome the Idaho Vandals to town.
In defeat, the Eastern Washington Eagles (16-9, 8-4) fell a game behind the Fighting Hawks for second in the race for the Big Sky title. The Eagles close out a two-game road swing on Saturday against the Northern Colorado Bears.
– T. Bennett