GRAND FORKS, N.D. (UND Athletics) -- North Dakota will be playing playoff basketball in the month of March.
Closing out the home portion of the schedule, the Fighting Hawks rolled to an 81-63 victory over Denver to clinch a spot in The Summit League Men’s Basketball Championship in Sioux Falls beginning March 9.
UND (11-16, 5-9 Summit League) dominated the Pioneers (7-21, 2-12 Summit League) over the final 25 minutes of the contest, outscoring the visitors, 58-40, over that span to collect the victory.
The Fighting Hawks honored the two members of their senior class, Cortez Seales and Conner Avants, prior to the game and the pair did not disappoint by scoring 12 and 11 points, respectively. Avants, who had not played since Jan. 19 at North Dakota State, finished with 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting, five rebounds, two assists, two steals in 19 minutes of action. Seales was strong once again for UND, scoring 12 points, dishing out a team-high three assists, and grabbing a rebound in the win.
It was the junior class who provided the top performances, as all three of UND’s top scorers were juniors. Kienan Walter led the way with a game-high 19 points, five rebounds, and three assists while Billy Brown chipped in 18 points on 4-of-6 from deep, four rebounds, and a game-high three steals. Marlon Stewart scored 15 of his 17 points in the first half to become the final starter to reach double figures for UND.
UND finished 32-of-62 (.516) from the field while holding the Pioneers to just 23-of-55 (.418), including just 4-for-23 from deep, to collect the 18-point victory.
After a back-and-forth start to the game, UND broke open the contest near the midway portion of the first half with a 17-4 run to take a double-digit lead, 19-8, early in the contest. The Fighting Hawks were hot from the field through the opening 10 minutes, sinking nine of their first 15 attempts to build the lead.
Denver began to rally as the half wore on, however, cutting the deficit down to just three at the under-eight media timeout before tying the game at 23 following a David Nzekwesi triple with just over six minutes to play in the first stanza. UND never allowed the Pioneers to move in front, as Avants and Stewart responded with five straight for the hosts to give the Hawks a 32-27 lead with 3:53 remaining in the period.
The Fighting Hawks kept their foot on the gas for the remainder of the first half, outscoring the Pios, 17-3, over the final three minutes to build a 44-30 advantage at the end of 20 minutes. Stewart led the way for the green and white with 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting while Avants tallied five points, two rebounds, an assist, and a steal in his first stint back from injury.
North Dakota didn’t slow down out of the halftime break, pushing the lead to as high as 19, 55-36, in the opening five minutes of play. Brown and Seales each joined Stewart in double figures as the stanza started, including an ankle-breaking drive to the hoop by Brown to bring the 1,946 fans to their feet.
The lead hovered around 15-19 for most of the first 10 minutes of the half, but the Fighting Hawks finally pushed the advantage over 20, 66-46, when Avants grabbed an offensive rebound and finished in the paint. Moments later, Walter fought through the contact to score while getting fouled to complete the three-point play and extend the lead to 69-48 with 7:34 remaining.
UND was able to close out the victory, 81-63, and punched its ticket to the conference tournament next March. North Dakota returns to action next Thursday evening with a conference showdown at Purdue Fort Wayne before closing out the regular season at South Dakota on Saturday.