Men's basketball wins 25th, moves to CIT Quarterfinals
GREELEY, Colo. -- It’s simple now. Tad Boyle’s fourth installment of Northern Colorado basketball can now lay claim to the title of “Best team in school history.”
Senior Will Figures led five Bears in double figures with 20 points Wednesday night, and Northern Colorado shot a sizzling 72 percent in the second half and scored its second-most second half points of the season in defeating Portland 81-73 in the Opening Round of this year’s CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT).
The win pushed the Bears into next Monday’s CIT Quarterfinals and gave them 25 wins this season, the very most ever won by a Northern Colorado men’s basketball team in 106 years of play.
The Bears’ 1988-89 team, featuring future NBA player Mike Higgins, finished its season at 24-6, but Wednesday’s victory, Northern Colorado’s first postseason win since 1994, brought this year’s squad to the forefront of any future “best-ever” discussions.
The Bears will potentially get a chance to further solidify their place in school history at home Monday. All indications are, pending confirmation from CIT officials, Northern Colorado would host in that game Pacific, which defeated Loyola Marymount in the CIT on Wednesday night.
“We’ve obviously done a lot this year, in terms of the accomplishments this program has achieved,” Northern Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “But this is absolutely one of those things that will forever live with these guys. This school has been playing for more than 100 years, and to do something that can never be taken away from us is pretty special. I am so proud of each and every one of these kids. Tonight’s win was absolutely huge for our program.”
And the Bears did it against arguably one of the toughest opponents they’ve faced all season. Portland was ranked No. 79 in this week’s NCAA RPI report (that’s the best mark of any team on NC’s schedule) and defeated earlier in the season Minnesota, UCLA (by 27) and St. Mary’s.
The Gophers were ranked 16th at the time of the defeat, UCLA is one of the best programs in the history of the NCAA, and St. Mary’s has won 26 games this year and is in this year’s NCAA Tournament field, as is Minnesota.
“Portland is a good team, and they’ve got some really good players,” Boyle said. “The WCC (West Coast Conference) is no joke, now, and they finished third behind some big-time programs (Gonzaga, St. Mary’s). But we’re a good team, too. I’m just glad we were at home. Our fans were absolutely fantastic tonight. This was a great night for UNC basketball.”
Figures got to at least 20 points for the 14th time this season by pouring in 14 in the second half, and Chris Kaba (14), Mike Proctor (13), Taylor Montgomery (13) and Neal Kingman (10) backed him in helping Northern Colorado improve to 13-1 this season and win its second straight against the West Coast Conference Pilots.
True-freshman Connor Osborne snagged down a career-high six rebounds in 15 minutes of play, and Northern Colorado also got great glasswork from Montgomery (six) and Kingman (five) to win the rebounding battle against a bigger Portland squad.
Boyle and his assistants all week in practice stressed the talent level of the Pilots’ interior quartet of Robin Smeulders (6-10), Kramer Knutson (6-9), Luke Sikma (6-8) and Jasonn Hannibal (6-10), and they knew it would take an over-the-top effort from Montgomery, Proctor and Osborne to get a victory in this one.
“We really challenged our big guys before the game started,” Boyle said. “We said, ‘This is the best group of big guys we’ve played against,’ and they just battled their tails off. We talked about pressuring the basketball and we talked about not pacing yourself.
“I’ve said it a lot this season, but this was a total-team effort. We got great contribution from every single player we put out there tonight. We played composed, we played smart and we really left it all on the floor. There’s a reason this time of year is so popular with fans, because the stakes are so high every time you step out there. We’ve been stressing to the guys all season to not have any regret, and they played like that tonight.”
The Bears had four leads of nine or more points, but they were never able to completely shake the hot-shooting Pilots, who entered the game ranked ninth in the NCAA in three-point shooting percentage and featured junior Jared Stohl, who is currently tops in the NCAA from beyond the arc (48 percent).
Portland made 12-of-22 3-pointers overall and seven-of-11 in the second half (64 percent) to stay in the game and 12-until a 15-6 run over the final three minutes put the game away and moved the Bears into a group of 40 teams that come Monday will still be playing during the 2009-10 season.
“We left Ogden (following a Big Sky Championship semifinal loss) with a lot still to prove,” Figures said. “We’ve had a great year, but we didn’t want it to end like it did. We’ve worked hard this season, and the guys who have been here awhile have worked hard for more than just this season to get to this point. We deserve this (getting 25 wins), and we’re still excited to lace ‘em back up and move on to the next step.”
QUICK NOTES: Northern Colorado wins its school-record 25th win (25-7), surpassing the 1988-89 team that finished 24-6 … The Bears won their first postseason game since 1994, when they defeated South Dakota in the first round of the North Central Conference Tournament … This is Northern Colorado’s first March win since 1996 … The Bears improve to 13-1 at home this season, which is their most home wins since 1989.