Script Flipped: UND earns gritty conference win at Western Illinois

MACOMB, Ill. (UND Athletics) – Just under two weeks ago, after the University of North Dakota men’s basketball team had lost its third straight Summit League game by four-or-fewer, Head Coach Brian Jones simply stated, “The game doesn’t cheat you.”

Flash forward to Friday afternoon at Western Hall in Macomb. North Dakota (9-13, 3-6 Summit League), who had been leading for just over 38 minutes of the 40-minute contest, just saw Western Illinois’ (8-14, 3-6 Summit League) Kobe Webster hit a three pointer from the wing to give the Fighting Leathernecks their first advantage of the contest, 73-72, with 16 seconds to play, and it looked as if UND was headed for another heartbreaker.

“The game doesn’t cheat you.”

Following an initial miss at the go-ahead shot, a fortunate bounce off a WIU player gave the Fighting Hawks a second look at the basket with four ticks to play. Then, Marlon Stewart was fouled on a three-point attempt with 1.6 remaining to send the junior to the charity stripe for three shots with a chance to win the game. There, Stewart made the first to tie the game at 73, but followed with a miss to setup a final attempt for the win.

Stewart, who had made 17 straight attempts before missing the previous one, drained the third attempt before a final heave at the buzzer by WIU was no good as North Dakota captured a huge road victory in conference play, 74-73, at Western Illinois.

“The game doesn’t cheat you.”

UND, who was without senior forward Conner Avants for the second straight game, rallied to snap a three-game losing skid and collect a much-needed season sweep over the Fighting Leathernecks for the conference standings.

Kienan Walter led the Fighting Hawk attack with a career-high 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting. The junior, who entered Friday having scored a combined 16 points over the previous four games, erupted with strong takes to the basket and a 3-for-5 afternoon from deep. The Vancouver, Wash., native also finished with six rebounds, two assists, and a pair of blocks.

Cortez Seales posted a strong second half to finish with 17 points to post his 16th contest with 10+ points, but his rebounding was the story as the senior finished with a career-high 15 boards to post his second-career double-double. The 15 rebounds are the most in a game by a UND player since Drick Bernstine achieved the same number vs. Arizona in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Filip Rebraca and Stewart were the third and fourth UND players in double figures as each scored 11 points in the win. Rebraca also finished with five rebounds while Stewart recorded four boards, a trio of assists, and a steal.

North Dakota won the rebounding battle, 43-36, moving to 8-1 this season when winning the battle on the boards. Billy Brown finished second on the team behind Seales with a career-high seven rebounds as UND’s backcourt finished with 27 total boards.

While UND had been plagued by slow starts recently, the visitors jumped out of the gate with 10 of the first 12 points to build an early 10-2 lead less than four minutes into the contest. Rebraca helped extend the advantage with six early points as UND connected on six of its first nine shot attempts while holding WIU to just 2-for-10 from the field to push the lead to as many as nine, 13-4, just under six minutes into the contest.

Western Illinois answered with a run of its own, cutting the deficit all the way down to just a single point at 13-12, but UND was able to get out in transition to score a trio of quick buckets to extend the lead back to seven at the halfway mark of the first half. The back-and-forth affair continued for much of the first half, as UND built its advantage to as large as nine, but WIU closed the stanza with seven of the final eight points to close the gap to just a pair, 32-30, after 20 minutes of action.

Seales was all over the glass for the Fighting Hawks in the first half, eclipsing his career high in boards with 11 in just 17 minutes of playing time. The senior grabbed four rebounds on the offensive side, helping the visitors tally seven second-chance points in the first period.

While no one reached double figures in the opening half, seven of the eight players who saw the floor for the Fighting Hawks registered at least two points led by Walter’s eight.

Much like the first half, UND came out strong to begin the second half. The visitors hit six of its first 10 attempts from the field as Walter capped off the quick start with his second three of the game to put the Hawks in front, 47-39, with 12:57 to play. Aanen Moody pushed the lead to double digits for the first time, 54-44, with his first three of the game at the halfway point of the stanza.

The Fighting Leathernecks answered with a run of their own, however, trimming the 10-point lead down to just a single point, 59-58, thanks to a 6-0 run by the hosts over a 1:56 span with just over six minutes to play. Walter halted the scoreless drought with a pair of makes at the charity stripe to give the junior a new career high in points.

The back-to-back free throws seemed to spark the visitors, as the Hawks connected on seven of their next eight shots from the field to restore a multi-possession lead, 71-64, with just under three minutes to play. Seales was a catalyst in the spurt for UND, hitting back-to-back layups to bring the high number of North Dakota fans in attendance to their feet.

Western Illinois answered the spurt with another run, scoring six straight points and holding UND scoreless for 2:30 to cut the lead down to just one again, 71-70, with 1:01 to play. After Rebraca hit 1-of-2 from the line to extend the lead to a pair, 72-70, with 27.7 ticks remaining, Webster nailed a three to give Western Illinois its first lead of the game, 73-72, with just seconds remaining.

After UND earned an offensive rebound off a miss with four seconds left, Stewart was fouled on a three-point attempt to send the junior to the charity stripe with 1.6 to play. Stewart, who had hit 16 straight from the charity stripe prior to stepping to the line, drilled the first to tie the game at 73 before missing the second. With overtime looming, the junior sank the third attempt and WIU’s final shot was off as the Fighting Hawks escaped with the 74-73 win.

North Dakota returns to action in less than 48 hours at Baxter Arena against Omaha. The contest, slated for a noon tipoff, can be seen live on MidcoSN.