CHENEY, Wash.-- The University of North Dakota claimed at least a share of the Big Sky Conference regular season title with a gritty 61-57 win at Eastern Washington Saturday afternoon. UND can win it outright Thursday at Southern Utah or if the Thunderbirds lose next Saturday against Northern Colorado.
Southern Utah (19-8, 13-5) also won Saturday to set-up a huge showdown Thursday night in Cedar City, Utah.
"It was a true team effort to have success today," UND head coach Travis Brewster said. "It goes to show you how tough the Big Sky Conference is-- 20 league games are a lot and it makes for a long season. It's a very exciting opportunity for the team, UND and the city of Grand Forks."
North Dakota (20-8, 15-4) was led by double-double performances from both Emily Evers (12 points, 13 rebounds) and Mia Loyd (11 points, 11 boards) to go along with Madi Buck's game-high 16 points.
UND was rolling early, piling up a 22-7 lead with eight minutes left in the opening half. Included in that stretch was 11-0 North Dakota run that featured threes from Makailah Dyer and Buck. Evers had a sequence where she collected a pair of defensive rebounds, two more on the offensive glass and buckets on both trips to help UND get out to a double-digit lead.
EWU (15-12, 11-7), who came into the game with a 12-2 home record, fought back and churned out 12 of the next 14 points to slice the deficit to five. The Eagles would whittle the lead down to two before Dyer beat the first-half clock with a layup and UND went into the break leading, 31-27.
Eastern took its first lead since 2-0 when it got a three from Lexie Nelson with 17:47 left. Buck answered with a big three from the right corner to quell any momentum shift and put North Dakota back in front.
UND again built its advantage to nine, 41-32, but had to fend off a pesky Eagle squad that was still fighting a long-shot chance at a share of the league title and potential hosting rights for the conference tourney. Marly Anderson scored on back-to-back trips, the second after a turnover forced by Jade Redmon and it was a one-point game at 52-51.
Laura Hughes gave the home team a three-point lead with 3:22 to go. Later, a steal by Loyd and a dish to Leah Szabla for the finish squared things up at 57-all and two minutes left. After Evers split a pair from the free throw line, Buck made a huge play defensively to help ice the game.
EWU had the ball trailing one with just under a minute to play when the senior jumped in front of a pass near mid-court and took it the length of the floor, finsihing with the left-hand on the fastbreak for a 60-57 UND cushion. The Eagles weren't able to get a good look from three in the closing seconds and Loyd hit a free throw on the other end to seal the win and sew up the conference's regular season title.
Hayley Hodgins had 14 to lead EWU with Nelson adding 12 and Hughes chipping in 10.
It marks UND's second 20-win season since transitioning to Division I (21-11 in 2011-12) and first-ever Big Sky Conference title (second season).
Notes: Loyd's double-double was her eighth of the season, tied for most in the league with Buck ... North Dakota's six conference road wins are tied for the most in the league (SUU) ... UND and Southern Utah-- both in their second season in the Big Sky-- are the two teams remaining to potentially host the league's postseason tournament.