RENO, Nev. — Some say that it’s not how you start that matters, but how you finish. On the flip side, sometimes a strong start can lead to the finish you’re looking for.
On Thursday afternoon, in the Big Sky quarter-finals, the latter held true for the North Dakota Fighting Hawks in their match-up against the Portland State Vikings.
Fresh off their first Big Sky regular season title in school history, North Dakota was the top seed in the conference tournament. They began their quest for their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, and make a statement in the process.
Portland State was playing their second game in three days. After dumping the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks by 13 points on Tuesday, things got a lot tougher on Thursday against the Fighting Hawks.
Out of the gate, the Fighting Hawks came ready to play. They opened the game by hitting 19 of their first 26 shot attempts, and while they went cold down the stretch in the opening half, they held a 14-point lead at the break.
The second half saw North Dakota continue to pull away, and the Fighting Hawks eased their way into the Big Sky semifinals with a 95-72 win over Portland State.
Six players for North Dakota recorded double-digit points in the win. Senior guard Corey Baldwin led the way, recording 18 points and 10 rebounds for his first career double-double. Fellow senior Quinton Hooker chipped in 17 points and seven assists.
Geno Crandall racked up 15 points, seven assists and four steals, while Cortez Seales came off the bench and scored 15 points of his own.
The Fighting Hawks hit 19 of their first 26 shot attempts in the first half, opening up a 26-point lead in the process. Over the final few minutes, North Dakota went cold from the field, missing their final six attempts from the field before half, allowing Portland to generate some momentum.
Portland State closed the half on a 12-0 run, capped off by a pair of three pointers from Bryce Canda, which were the first threes for the Vikings on the day. They managed to cut the deficit down to 49-35 after the opening 20 minutes, giving themselves some momentum and confidence as they entered the second frame.
Canda scored a team-high 12 points to pace the offensive attack for the Vikings.
In the second half, the Vikings did their best to cut the deficit down to single digits, but North Dakota always had an answer on the other end of the floor. With just over 10 minutes to play in the game, a pair of free throws from Seales pushed the lead to 21 points for the Fighting Hawks, at 68-47.
A few minutes later, Hooker would hit two more free throws that gave North Dakota a 30-point lead, their biggest of the game, at 87-57. While Portland State closed the game on a 15-5 run, the lead was never seriously threatened.
North Dakota cruised into the semifinals of the Big Sky tournament for the fourth straight year with a 95-72 win over Portland State.
The win also gives North Dakota its first 20-win season as a Division I member. North Dakota last posted a 20-win season back in the 2004-05 season (20-10).
On Friday in the semifinals, North Dakota will take on the winner of Thursday night’s game between the four-seed Idaho Vandals and the five-seed Montana Grizzlies.
Friday’s game is set for a 7:35pm CT tip-off.
– T. Bennett