North Dakota drops Big Sky opener to Idaho Vandals

GRAND FORKS -- Close. Again.However, close is meaningless when it comes to Big Sky Conference men's basketball.Idaho -- the likely Big Sky favorite after a surprisingly strong nonconference showing -- managed to craft a 74-71 win over the Univers...

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UND’s Quinton Hooker pushes past Idaho’s Victor Sanders toward the basket during Friday’s Big Sky opener at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center. (FNS Photo by Jesse Trelstad)

GRAND FORKS - Close. Again.
However, close is meaningless when it comes to Big Sky Conference men’s basketball.
Idaho - the likely Big Sky favorite after a surprisingly strong nonconference showing - managed to craft a 74-71 win over the University of North Dakota on Thursday in the league opener both teams before 1,436 fans at The Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.
One UND storyline last season focused on the seven Big Sky losses by the Fighting Hawks that came by seven or fewer points. Four of those losses came at home.
This season, UND has started the Big Sky season with a three-point loss at home.
“Our kids played extremely hard,” said UND coach Brian Jones. “There are areas where we need to get better but the effort is there. I’m excited about where we’re going. We had four or five freshmen going through that for the first time. Now, after this game, they’ll know how important possessions are in this league, and they’ll understand they have to sustain effort and focus over 40 minutes.”
Idaho, which improved to 9-4 overall, was the stronger team down the stretch. In a back-and-forth second half, the Vandals took the lead for good at 60-57 on a 3-pointer by Victor Sanders with 4:51 to go.
UND (5-7) managed to tie the game at 67-67 but the Vandals made just enough plays in the closing minutes.
Quinton Hooker’s long 3-point attempt at the buzzer was off the mark, allowing the Vandals to hang on.
But Hooker was the reason UND was in a position to force overtime. He tied his career-high with 28 points, scoring 26 in the second half.
Hooker has played the past month with a torn plantar fasciitis. The junior guard hasn’t been able to practice much but still has managed to lead UND in scoring.
UND was able to take some solace in the fact it played perhaps the best team in the league to the wire.
“But it’s frustrating because they are one of the hottest teams in the league,” said Hooker. “It’s the little things here and there that hurt us. I think this group will realize it’s the little things that matter.”
One of the little things focused on the free-throw line. UND was 15 of 25 from the stripe. Also, UND had trouble - at times - finishing at the rim. And during one crucial Idaho possession, UND couldn’t get a defensive rebound.
Perrion Callandret, who led the Vandals with 21 points, scored on a putback with three-and-a-half minutes to go. That gave Idaho a 64-60 lead. Idaho outrebounded UND 37-28 and of the Vandals’ nine offensive boards, six came from Idaho guards.
UND’s best chance came with the Fighting Hawks holding a 56-52 lead after Geno Crandall (13 points) scored on a pull-up jumper with 7:05 to play.
Idaho, however, began to take control and went on an 8-1 run over the next two-plus minutes.
The Vandals’ bench came up big by scoring 38 points. UND reserves tallied 12.
UND’s Carson Shanks (10 points) joined Hooker and Crandall in double figures.
UND will host Eastern Washington on Saturday, hoping to get over the hump in Big Sky play.
“We’re close,” added Jones. “You have to be able to finish games. You have to be able to make timely foul shots and get key defensive stops down the stretch.”


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