Balanced attack leads North Dakota to New Year’s win

DENVER, Colo. (UND Athletics) -- Nine total players found the scoresheet, including five in double figures, for North Dakota to lead the Fighting Hawks past Denver, 90-82, on Wednesday night from Hamilton Gymnasium in Denver.

UND (10-4, 1-0 Summit League) led for nearly 37 minutes of the contest, but it was a back-and-forth affair that saw the Fighting Hawks claim their second straight win in a conference opener and their third victory in the last four games.

The 10 wins by North Dakota continue to match the pace set by the 2013-14 and 2014-15 squads as its best start since joining the Division I ranks.

Julia Fleecs led the visitors with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field, adding nine rebounds, three steals, and a pair of assists in the winning effort. UND also picked up a huge first half from Lilly Keplin, who scored all 13 of her points in the opening 20 minutes.

Megan Zander chipped in her second straight game in double figures with 11 points while Claire Orth matched her career high from last season vs. Western Illinois with 11 points. Jaclyn Jarnot was the final Hawk in double figures with 10 while adding seven boards and a pair of assists.

UND dominated the glass in both rebounding, 45-34, and blocks, 4-2, with Melissa Leet leading the pack with a trio of rejections. Five-different players grabbed at least five boards in the win for UND, led by Fleecs’ nine.

The Hawks finished at 51.6% from the field and held the Pioneers to exactly 40.0%. Both teams shot the ball from distance pretty equally, with UND draining seven on 19 attempts and Denver hitting six on 18 tries.

Turnovers were one of the only bugaboos for the visitors in the winning effort, committing 25 to DU’s 17. UND controlled the bench points, 37-15, and won the battle in the paint, 44-42.

From the jump, you could tell it was conference season, as both teams came out with pace and intensity. It was North Dakota who turned it into points on the offensive end, with Orth and Alania Jarnot hitting back-to-back threes to put the Hawks in front, 10-4, less than three minutes into the game and forcing an early Denver timeout.

Both teams found their footing offensively, but it was Denver who was able to start connecting from distance. The Pioneers hit all three of their attempts from the beyond-the-arc, while finishing the quarter 9-for-12 from the field, to rally back from an eight-point deficit to end the frame deadlocked at 22.

The quick pace continued into the second stanza, with North Dakota again getting off to a strong start offensively. The visitors struck for 10 of the quarter’s first 12 points to restore its eight-point lead, 32-24, just minutes into the frame.

Denver battled back once again, eventually knotting the game at 40 before taking its first lead of the game, 43-42, on its fifth made triple on just seven attempts in the first half. As they have been doing nearly the entire first half, the Hawks answered the brief burst from the Pioneers thanks to the rookies. Keplin drilled a midrange jumper before Megan Zander picked the pocket of ensuing ball handler, drove to the hoop, and scored through the contact to complete the three-point play. Moments later, Kacie Borowicz threaded a perfect pass to Keplin out of a double team, and the freshman connected again from deep to give UND a 51-45 lead.

The Pioneers scored the final four points of the first half, but the visitors carried a 51-49 lead into the locker room.

UND tightened up on the defensive end to start the third quarter, holding Denver to just four of its first 15 shots from the field to build a 63-57 lead at the frame’s media timeout. The seemingly automatic attack from distance from the Pioneers dried up as well, with the hosts missing their first seven of the second half.

The Hawks pushed their lead to double digits for the first time late in the third quarter, with Borowicz slicing through defenders for the layup to extend the advantage to 67-57 late in the stanza. Denver found its footing late in the frame, however, scoring 10 of the final 11 points to trim the deficit to one, 68-67, after three quarters.

As the theme has been for the previous three quarters, it was UND who came out strong to begin the final period of play. Orth struck for a tetrad of points, including a basket off a great dribble handoff from Fleecs, to extend the advantage back to six, 77-71, with just over seven minutes to play.

Denver made one final push, cutting the lead down to five with just over four minutes remaining, but UND held the Pioneers to just two points from the field over the final four minutes of the contest to pull away for the 90-82 win.

North Dakota returns home for a showdown with Purdue Fort Wayne on Sunday at 2 p.m. from the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.