Fast start powers Men's Basketball to big win over Viks
By ZACH BOND
GREELEY – The term "must-win game" is used far too often to describe important games. It's used whenever a team drops more than a couple games in a row and its overuse has dulled the impact of the term.
The Northern Colorado men's basketball program's season is still too young to call any game at this point a "must-win", but there certainly was some added focus as the Bears came into Thursday night's home contest against Portland State looking to snap a five-game slide and get back in the win column of the Big Sky standings.
They did just that, and in style, as the Bears jumped out to a sizable lead early and never looked back in their 67-50 win over the Vikings inside Butler-Hancock.
"I didn't want to use those words (must-win), but I got pretty close in shoot around today," Northern Colorado coach B.J. Hill said. "They understand. They're smart guys. The big part is whether or not they become consistent in the focus they had today. That's where we have not been strong as a group, this group, for the last year-and-a-half, is that consistency. But I'm seeing a lot more focus in practice, seeing a lot more attentive eyes on me at timeouts."
Northern Colorado came out with energy and focus from the get-go as the Bears jumped out to a 12-2 advantage before the 16 minute mark of the first half. Northern Colorado didn't stop there either, as it continued to push its advantage to as large as 32-7 before the eight-minute media timeout.
Armed with that 25-point lead, the Bears never let up the gas, even though it can be difficult to keep a team's focus with a big lead in hand. The Vikings never got within 20 points of the Bears the rest of the game until the final two minutes with both teams clearing their benches.
With the win, the Bears snapped their aforementioned losing streak and picked up a big win in front of a raucous crowd of 1,341. The win moved Northern Colorado to 2-5 in conference and 4-11 overall and moved the Bears' record at Butler-Hancock back up to .500 (3-3).
The loss moved the Vikings down to 3-4 in Big Sky play and 5-9 overall.
Redshirt junior Tate Unruh played a huge role in the Bears getting out to that huge early lead. The 6-4 guard from Branson, Mo. scored 11 straight points at one point during the game's first seven minutes. That run featured three 3-pointers. Unruh capped off that 11-point barrage with a deep fast-break three to put the Bears up 20-4.
Unruh finished the game with team-leading 19 points and made 5-of-6 shots from behind the arc. Thursday's win marked the third straight game Unruh has tied his career high by making five long range shots. With those five threes Thursday, he also moved past Neal Kingman for third on Northern Colorado's Division I career 3-pointers list. He now has made 119 threes in his career.
Thursday featured a Northern Colorado squad that was extremely balanced offensively, as nine players got on the scoreboard. The only other player besides Unruh to score in double figures was Paul Garnica (San Antonio, Texas).
Coming off the bench, Garnica provided a spark for the Bears in scoring 12 points. In the first half especially, he had an impact, as he poured in nine points on 3-of-4 shooting from behind the arc. It was a combination of Unruh and Garnica's lethal outside shooting that helped Northern Colorado get out to its large lead in the first half. The two combined to make 7-of-8 from outside in the game's opening 20 minutes.
For the second game in-a-row, Northern Colorado's offense was humming, especially in the first half where the Bears shot a blistering 59.4 percent from the field and 70 percent from three-point land.
Northern Colorado finished the contest with 47.2 percent shooting from the field and 58.8 percent from the three-point line. The Bears' 10 3-pointers were their most since hitting 10 against UC Riverside in early December.
The Bears also did some good work defensively, holding Portland State to just 33.9 percent shooting for the game and less than 28 percent from three-point territory.
"Obviously we shot the ball well, which got us off to a great start," Hill said. "But I was more impressed with the 40 minutes of defense we put together. We've shot the ball well before, but usually we give up about 55 percent, so to give up 33 (percent) is a big step for these guys.
"We didn't guard great in the second half, but we guarded pretty darn well. I think a big part of that was Greg Tucker out front. It was the first time he's played this many minutes and I thought he was unbelievable on the ball in holding a really good player (Lateef McMullan) under wraps."
It was also the second straight game that the Bears recorded fewer than 10 turnovers, while also racking up 15 assists for the second consecutive contest.
Osborne finished with six points and a season-high nine rebounds. It was that rebounding, along with his defensive leadership that has Hill most excited.
"Connor is becoming a leader," Hill said. "He's really vocal on the defensive end and gives his teammates confidence. If he rebounds it like that, we don't need him to really score a lot of points. He's a great passer. He's got a really high basketball-IQ on the offensive end, but when he rebounds it like that and defends, it really provides an anchor for our team defensively."
Barden, while seeing his string of double-doubles end at two games, still had a productive game while playing fewer than normal minutes due to the Bears' large lead. He finished with eight points and nine rebounds.
Another home game is next up for Northern Colorado as it ends a four-game home stand by hosting Eastern Washington at 7:05 p.m. (MT) on Saturday, Jan. 19.