RENO, Nev. — The defending Big Sky Conference tournament champions sent notice Monday night they're serious about a repeat.
The Montana State women's basketball team held off North Dakota for a 68-58 win in the first round of the league tournament at the Reno Events Center. Montana State (16-14) will play second-seeded Idaho (17-12) in a quarterfinal on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.
The Bobcats and Fighting Hawks were locked in a 21-21 tie with just over four minutes left in the second quarter. Then the Cats seized control with a 15-0 run to close out the half, spearheaded by Tori Martell with eight points, six coming on a pair of treys.
"Really that second quarter, getting a couple baskets back-to-back right in a row when Tori (Martell) checked in gave us breathing room and we settled down," Montana State coach Tricia Binford said. "That was the stretch we were trying to live through (in the second half)."
North Dakota (12-18) made a gutsy comeback in the second half, cutting its deficit to 56-53 on a pair of Fallyn Freije free throws with 4:36 left. But the Cats answered with a Rebekah Hatchard drive for two and teammate Delany Junkermier hit a pair of triples in the final three-plus minutes to seal the deal.
"We started letting things fly a little more in the second half and now we should be ready Wednesday," said Junkermier, whose 15 points was second on the team to Hatchard with 18.
North Dakota coach Travis Brewster said his team's inability to take care of the ball in the first half was critical.
"You look at the first half, we turned it over 13 times and the second half three. We have to be able to put two halves together," he said. "That's been an Achilles' heel all year. Then we executed some things really well. The shots didn't fall."
Both teams shot just under 35 percent for the game. But the Bobcats hit 11 treys to the Hawks' six and MSU held a 13-10 edge in points from the foul line.
Binford, the Big Sky's coach of the year two seasons ago, says her team is going to try to use Monday's experience as a positive. The Cats will enter Wednesday's showdown feeling much more comfortable on the Reno Events Center court than Idaho.
On the other hand, the Vandals will look at their first-round bye as a positive and will be the better rested team Wednesday.
Binford knows her team is in for a battle.
"They have three of the best players in the conference," she said, referring to long-range sharpshooters Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce and post Geraldine McCorkell. "It's a challenging defensive assignment for us. We just have to do a great job making them earn what they get. And we're going to have to put points on the board ourselves."