Dance cards full

Athletics success makes for busy week in regional and national tournaments, including Men’s Basketball’s first appearance on an NCAA Division I bracket

UND men's basketball team

UND men’s basketball players and coaches celebrate the school’s first-ever Big Sky Conference Tournament Championship and a trip to the NCAA national tournament. Photo by Matt Schill.

The UND men’s basketball team didn’t find out who it would play in its first NCAA Division I tournament game until the team’s charter flight was taking off from Minneapolis Airport on its way home.

Probably fitting for a team that has been flying high much of the 2016-2017 season, with its best record (22-9), so far, in the Division I era.

The team made history over the weekend, securing its first-ever bid to The Big Dance, the NCAA Division I national tournament, joining 68 other basketball teams on a quest for a title. After defeating Big Sky nemesis, Weber State, in the Big Sky Conference tournament championship game, The Fighting Hawks, as a 15 seed, earned the right to take on the Arizona Wildcats (No. 2 seed) in the first round of the tournament. Tip-off is slated for just before 9 p.m., on Thursday, and will be televised on the TBS network nationally.

The team returned to Grand Forks to a hero’s welcome Sunday night, complete with University Police escort from the airport to the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center, where more than 100 fans awaited their arrival.

“I couldn’t be more proud of these guys,” said UND Head Basketball Coach Brian Jones about his team. “It’s been a long journey for us throughout the year. They’ve really embraced the process and stayed the course and they’re being rewarded for that right now.”

The men were joined by the UND Women’s Basketball team, which, lost its opening game of the Big Sky Tournament. But by virtue of winning a share of the Big Sky Conference regular season championship, the UND women are not done playing just yet. They are set to square off in another big tournament, the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT).

The women are set to take on former and future conference foe University of South Dakota Coyotes in Vermillion, S.D., at 7 p.m., Thursday. UND used to be conference mates with USD when both were at the Division II level. In 2018, UND will rejoin USD as a member of the Summit Conference.

Quinton Hooker and Corey Baldwin

UND seniors Quinton Hooker and Corey Baldwin show their appreciation for being named to the Big Sky All Tournament Team. Hooker also was named the tournament’s MVP, following a thrilling overtime victory over Weber State on Saturday in the conference championship game. Photo by Matt Schill.

Thrilling overtimes

After a thrilling a come-from-behind Big Sky championship victory in overtime against Weber State, UND’s men celebrated its achievement by ceremonially cutting down the nets.

UND twice overcame double digit deficits in the game to force overtime.

Regulation time expired at the basketball championship game within seconds of another UND game that ended regulation time in a tie. Back in Grand Forks, more than 11,000 people at Ralph Engelstad Arena were gathered for the first round of the National Collegiate Hockey Association’s playoff game between UND and St. Cloud State.

While the ice was being prepped for overtime at the hockey game, the UND hockey crowd was treated to the basketball overtime session on the Ralph’s giant Jumbotron video monitor. The Ralph audience erupted with jubilation as it watched UND Basketball guard Geno Crandall fling the basketball into the air as overtime ended with the Fighting Hawks ahead of Weber State 93-89.

After years of beatings at the hands of Weber State, Big Sky basketball’s traditional powerhouse, UND was somehow able to sweep the series 3-0 against the Wildcats this year. The sweetest victory came in the conference finals.

“Honestly, I’m at a loss for words,” said UND Basketball senior and team captain Quinton Hooker about finally getting a conference championship. “This has been in the works since my freshman year, especially going up against Weber and losing to them each and every time, and now to get over that hump to beat them three times in a year for a championship — It’s just crazy. I’ve just been so blessed to be here at UND.”

Not long after, the UND hockey squad finished off St. Cloud State in sudden death, propelling them to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff in Minneapolis.

UND men’s hockey will take on the Denver Pioneers in the NCHC semifinals at 7:30 p.m., on Friday, March 17. The game will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.

Check out the North Dakota Champions Club’s Postseason Central page for all details about he NCAA Tournament, WNIT and Frozen Face-off in Minneapolis.