RENO, Nev. — It took an extra five minutes of action, but it was all worth it in the end.
Before the 2016-17 season got underway, many picked either the reigning champion Weber State Wildcats or the North Dakota Fighting Hawks to win the conference title and represent the Big Sky in the NCAA Tournament.
On Saturday night, in Reno, the two teams met in the Big Sky tournament with a spot in the NCAA Tournament on the line.
North Dakota won their first regular season Big Sky crown, and came in as the one-seed. Weber State, the defending champions, came in as the three-seed. Both rosters are decorated with star-caliber players, so it was bound to be a tight contest from the start.
After the Fighting Hawks took a four-point lead into the break, Weber State bounced back and opened up an 11-point lead of their own midway through the second frame. North Dakota fought their way back, and forced overtime on a layup from Geno Crandall in the final seconds.
In the extra frame, big baskets from Crandall and Quinton Hooker pushed North Dakota ahead with two minutes to play. From there, the Fighting Hawks held on for the 93-89 victory over Weber State to punch their first ever ticket to the Big Dance as a Division I program.
With 7:29 to play in the second half, a dunk from Zach Braxton gave Weber State a 72-61 cushion. With momentum squarely behind them, the Wildcats looked to put the game away.
North Dakota had other ideas, and started to claw their way back into the game.
Hooker hit a trio of free throws with 3:20 to play to bring the Fighting Hawks back to within three points, at 76-73. Kyndahl Hill responded with five straight points for the Wildcats, and the lead was back up to six with under a minute to go.
Over the final 48 seconds, Weber State was held off the scoreboard, allowing North Dakota back into the contest. Crandall scored four points in the closing minute, including a layup with eight seconds to play, forcing overtime in the Big Sky championship with the game knotted up at 81-all.
In the extra session, the teams went back-and-forth for the first couple of minutes. After an empty possession from Weber State with 2:16 to play, Hooker responded with a layup on the next possession to give the Fighting Hawks a three-point lead with under two to play.
From there, North Dakota remained in the lead until the final buzzer, earning their ticket to the Big Dance with a 93-89 victory over Weber State.
A balanced scoring effort led North Dakota to the biggest win in program history, as six players put up double digit points. Quinton Hooker scored a game-high 28 points to lead the way, while 9-of-18 from the field.
Geno Crandall added 17 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists, while Cortez Seales put up 12 points off the bench.
For Weber State, the usual suspects led the way. Jeremy Senglin scored a team-high 26 points to go along with nine rebounds. Kyndahl Hill recorded a double-double of 21 points and 12 rebounds.
For the first time since the program became a Division I member, North Dakota (22-9) will hear their name called on Selection Sunday to see who they play in their first game in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite the loss, it’s expected that Weber State (19-13) will receive some sort of invitation to a post-season tournament, whether it’s the CIT or the CBI. Those field are also finalized on Sunday.
– T. Bennett