RENO, Nev.-The odds were against the University of North Dakota's men's basketball team, 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 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."
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."
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.
MSU (13-19): Blevins 2-9 1-2 10, Neumann 4-7 0-0 10, Hall 4-10 0-0 11, H. Frey 2-9 0-0 6, Klines 5-11 5-5 16, Green 1-3 0-0 3, Mvuezolo 4-8 0-0 10, Osayande 0-0 0-1 0, K. Frey 3-8 3-4 10, Nikkarinen 1-1 0-0 3. Totals: 26-66 9-12.
UND (12-19): Jones 3-3 0-0 9, Avants 5-11 0-2 10, Crandall 6-12 4-6 18, Stewart 9-17 7-9 29, Seales 0-4 0-0 0, Kinsey 0-3 0-0 0, Walter 4-4 1-1 10, Buchanan 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 27-58 12-18.
Half: MSU 40, UND 33. 3-point goals: MSU 13-30 (Neumann 2-3, Hall 3-5, H. Frey 2-7, Klines 1-4, Green 1-2, Mvuezolo 2-4, K. Frey 1-3, Nikkarinen 1-1), UND 10-21 (Jones 3-3, Crandall 2-6, Stewart 4-6, Walter 1-1), Total fouls: MSU 18, UND 15. Rebounds: MSU 43 (Blevins 10, K. Frey 9), UND 33 (Jones 9, Avants 9). Assists: MSU 19 (Klines 5), UND 13 (Stewart 5). Turnovers: MSU 13 (Hall 3), UND 11 (Crandall 5).