RENO, Nev. -- As the defending Big Sky Tournament champions, North Dakota did not give up its trophy without a fight against top-seeded Montana on Thursday. In the end, the Grizzlies (25-7) posted an 84-76 victory over the eighth-seeded Fighting Hawks after outscoring UND 10-4 in the closing three minutes to escape with a win in the first quarterfinal of the tournament.
The loss to the Griz was the eighth-straight in the series that brings a close to UND's six-year membership run in the conference.
"We wanted to come out and not play on our heels like I thought we did on Tuesday," UND head coach Brian Jones said. "We came out swinging in those opening four minutes and really set the tone for the game.
"I thought both teams really played at a high level, it was just about a minute-and-a-half stretch late in the game where we took some quick shots and had some miscues that ended up costing us."
Junior Cortez Seales pulled UND within a basket at 74-72 with a layup at the 3:25 mark, but Fabijan Krslovic scored in the post on back-to-back possessions to stretch the lead to six and the Fighting Hawks (12-20) never recovered.
Seales finished with 14 of his 22 points in the second half, while senior Dale Jones was the Fighting Hawk blistering the nets in the first half. The Iowa grad transfer equaled his career-high with 24 points, netting 22 of those before the break.
UND also got 17 points, seven assists and five steals from junior Geno Crandall, who ended his Big Sky Tournament run by tying a tournament record with 24 steals in eight games in Reno.
Jones buried a career-high six 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes and his fifth triple of the game gave UND what would be its largest lead of the game at 31-24 with 7:20 to play.
The Griz responded with a 15-2 run that resulted in a 39-33 advantage, but Jones made sure that lead would be short-lived. He drilled his sixth trey of the half to spark a 9-3 close for the lower seed, which squared things at 42-42 going into halftime.
After Montana's Ahmaad Rorie, who led all scorers with 30 points, opened the second half with a 3-pointer, Seales sparked a 12-4 spurt that put the Fighting Hawks up 54-49 with 16:19 to play.
UND's lead grew to 56-50 on Kienan Walter's first basket of the game, but the Fighting Hawks followed that with a six-minute stretch where they did not make a field goal. Walter earned his second career start for the injured Conner Avants, who missed just the second game of his career after suffering an injury in the opening-round victory vs. Montana State on Tuesday.
That drought allowed the Griz to take the lead for good as Rorie and Michael Oguine took over for Montana. Oguine added 23 points as that duo went 17-for-28 from the floor.
The Griz defense also made an adjustment on Jones and limited him to just one field in the post after halftime.
Rorie answered with a trey on UM's next possession, then made two free throws the next time down to give the Griz their largest advantage to that point at 72-65.
UND never quit, but Krslovic's baskets were the back-breaker in this one as it marked the first time in UND's last seven conference tournaments that it did not advance to the semifinals, including four trips at the Big Sky event.
Krslovic finished with a double-double, helping Montana own the glass with a 43-28 advantage. He had 12 points to go with a game-high 13 rebounds, helping the Griz hold a 43-28 edge.
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