RENO, Nev. — The final act seemed so unlikely it took a while to register.
Not just for Montana State men's basketball coach Brian Fish, whose team blew a 19-point lead in the final 11 minutes. North Dakota coach Brian Jones was just as dumbfounded after his injury-depleted squad rallied for a 76-74 victory Tuesday in the first round of the Big Sky Conference tournament at the Reno Events Center.
"I'm still like, 'Did that just happen?''' said Jones, whose team will play top-seeded Montana in a quarterfinal Thursday at 1 p.m. "I felt the first half Montana State did a great job taking the fight to us. They really came out and were aggressive and dictated everything.
"I kept challenging these guys, 'When are we going to fight back?' ... The last 11 minutes our guys got it done on the defensive end, bottom line. We were able to defend them and guys made some huge shots."
The biggest bucket came with 6 seconds to play. North Dakota sophomore forward Kienan Walter hit a short putback to give the Fighting Hawks a 74-74 lead. Then the Cats were denied a last-second shot when Tyler Hall had his pocket picked by Gene Crandall.
"It really came down to when you get a 19-point lead, we just had to make stops," said Fish, whose team hasn't won a Big Sky tourney game since 2009. "We didn't need to score another basket. We just needed to get stops. Credit them. Marlon (Stewart) played very well."
Stewart finished with a game-high 29 points. He hit a critical triple with 4:30 remaining, then followed up with a deuce and another triple to help key the comeback.
When Dale Jones hit back-to-back three-pointers, North Dakota had its first lead, 71-70, with 2:11 left. MSU reclaimed the lead on a Joe Mvuezolo Jr. layup, then pushed it to 74-71 on a pair of Konner Frey free throws.
But when Crandall's and-one play tied the game 74-74, the Fighting Hawks refused to give up another point. Crandall had a big defensive rebound on a Frey miss, setting the stage for the final 10 seconds.
"The coaches just kept pushing us and telling us it's not over," Stewart said. "It's win or go home and that will just kicked in."
Montana State (13-18) will look back on the game and lament the fact it faded at the end of both halves. The Cats led by 17 with under six minutes left in the first half before UND (11-19) closed the gap to 40-33 by intermission.
"We had tremendous energy, great leadership and the guys played incredibly hard," Fish said. "We just needed one little juice to get us a win. I'm so proud of how they played. We just let one slip away."
Jones, a former University of Iowa assistant who guided his team to a Big Sky tourney title last March, was anxious to talk about Thursday's matchup with the regular-season champion Grizzlies. His team has lost to Montana twice since the beginning of the year.
"For years Weber (State) was the bully. And our Achilles' heel. We could not get past them," Jones said. "As of the last few meetings we've had success against Weber, but Montana we haven't. That shows the athletic department as a whole just how they've been able to sustain across the board.
"... Obviously we're going to do whatever we can to win that (Thursday) game. But because of their depth and their size, they are a team I feel that can go on and win a game in the (NCAA) tournament, which is different for our league. You don't usually have legitimate big bigs."
Joining Stewart in double figures scoring for UND were Crandall with 18 points and Conner Avants and Walter each with 10. The bad news for the Hawks is that Avants and Cortez Seales both left the game win an injury and they may not be ready to go Thursday.
Devonte Klines paced Montana State with 16 points. Hall had 11 points along with seven rebounds and four assists.