Editor's note: In this series, the Grand Forks Herald's veteran sports staff ranks its top five memorable games or moments. Herald sports editor Wayne Nelson continues his list with this No. 2 memorable game.
Reno, Nev., is 1,627 miles from Grand Forks. The Nevada city is known more for gambling than basketball. But the Big Sky Conference, however, took a gamble on Reno a few years ago and placed its league basketball tournaments in the city -- hoping the bright lights of the Biggest Little City in the World would attract thousands of fans to the tournament.
That gamble didn’t pay off.
But the UND men’s basketball team left the city with a jackpot on March 11, 2017, when the Fighting Hawks won their biggest game in program history -- a 93-89 overtime win over Weber State in the title game.
That win sent UND to the NCAA Tournament, which is the ultimate goal for any men’s program in the country.
UND’s win also may have served another purpose. It proved the Hawks belonged in the Big Sky. UND’s tenure in the league was short at six years. But UND did not receive a lot of love in the league, and that wasn’t surprising given UND’s location in the massive, three time zone league.
On one cold January night at The Betty, one Big Sky men’s basketball coach asked me this question: “Why do you guys even want to be in this league?”
His team had just lost to UND and it was cold outside, really cold.
But UND had no other league choices at the time and the men’s basketball program -- for the most part -- played well in the Big Sky tournaments, capped by its win over Weber.
UND had defeated Weber twice during the 2016-17 season. And, as the old adage goes, it’s hard to beat a team three times during a season. UND was the ropes against Weber as the Hawks trailed by 10 points with eight minutes to play and was looking at a six-point deficit with a minute left in regulation.
But there are times in athletics when one player simply wills his team to a win. UND’s Quinton Hooker did that against Weber. His play down the stretch was unforgettable. He was the glue to that team and the sight of the exhausted UND guard lying on the court after the game will never leave me.
The tournament MVP spent everything he had in leading UND to the win, scoring 28 points -- including the game-winning points.
"We talked all season about finishing the race," said Hooker after the game. "We've been resilient all year and that's how we were tonight. This team stuck together; I couldn't be more proud of my guys. This is what UND deserves."
The Hawks never lacked confidence, either, especially when they trailed by double digits with eight minutes to go.
"We've had close games; we've been down in games this season," said UND guard Geno Crandall during the postgame press conference. "When we were down 10, we were in the huddle and we looked at each other and said, 'We're going to win this game. We just have to figure out how.' "
It’s hard to say that one win is bigger than all others, especially for a program that has had its fair share of success over the decades.
But UND’s win in 2017 deserves that classification, even though UND had great success during the Phil Jackson era in the 1960s and as well in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the program was among the best in Division II.
But this win sent UND to the Big Dance, arguably the biggest sporting event each year in the country. UND got to experience the Dance a week later in Salt Lake City, where the Hawks fell to Arizona 100-82.
UND’s win came at the Reno Events Center, a poorly lit facility where the fan turnout left a lot to be desired.
A few days later, however, UND played under the brightest lights possible in college basketball.
That’s more than enough for me to rank this game as No. 2 on my list.
Herald Top 5 Lists
2. UND’s win over Weber State lifted the Hawks to the NCAA big stage