Crushing UNC loss puts postseason in peril
Last night, the Northern Colorado Bears appeared to be on their way to a big home win over North Dakota, a four-game winning streak, and a comfortable position in the Big Sky standings heading into their final three league games, with a clear leg up in the battle to finish in the top 7 and thus qualify for the conference tournament.
But it wasn’t to be. The Bears let this one slip away in Greeley, and now they are in some trouble, probably needing at least one road win next week to secure a postseason spot.
Down 31-28 at halftime, UNC jumped out early in the second half, and took a 44-33 lead with 13:11 remaining. At that point, it looked like the Bears might cruise into another huge home victory. Their win probability was almost 95%, according to Ken Pomeroy. Over the next 5 1/2 minutes, though, North Dakota went on an 11-2 run, and suddenly it was just 46-44 Bears with 7:51 left.
With 3:31 left, UND tied it at 54-54, then took their first lead since just past halftime, at 58-57, with 2:24 to go. The teams traded baskets until, having taken a 61-60 lead, UNC got the ball back, with that 1-point cushion still intact, by rebounding a missed North Dakota layup with 1:14 to go. An offensive rebound and a recovered near-turnover later, UNC still had the ball and a 1-point lead with 20 seconds left, and Tevin Svihovec went to the line for two shots. Again, it felt like the Bears were on the verge of pullling it out, surviving UND’s late charge. The win probability shot back up over 80%.
But Svihovec made just 1 of 2 foul shots, North Dakota got the rebound, and Aaron Anderson hit a 3-pointer with 8 seconds left to give UND the lead.
The Bears had plenty of time to answer, but Tate Unruh committed a turnover with 4 seconds left. A missed free throw on the other end gave UNC the opportunity for a surprisingly good look at a game-tying layup at the buzzer (after an excellent full-court pass with 1 second left), but Tim Huskisson missed, and that was the ballgame. 64-62 North Dakota, final.
Northern Colorado is now 7-10 in conference play with three games left. The good news is that, in contrast to some competitors who have games against Montana and/or Weber State left on the sachedule, each of UNC’s games is eminently winnable — on the road at 6-10 Eastern Washington and 5-11 Portland State, then at home against 8-8 Southern Utah — but the pressure is now on. At the moment, UNC is on the outside of that all-important top 7, looking in:
3. UND (9-8): @PSU (40%), @EWU (45%), SUU (69%)
4. SUU (8-8): MSU (68%), Montana (28%), @UNC (28%), @UND (31%)
5(t). MSU (7-9): @SUU (32%), Montana (25%), NAU (62%), Sac (54%)
5(t). SacSt (7-9): Weber (19%), ISU (79%), @Montana (14%), @MSU (46%)
5(t). NAU (7-9): ISU (73%), Weber (14%), @MSU (38%), @Montana (10%)
8. UNC (7-10): @EWU (49%), @PSU (44%), SUU (72%)
9. EWU (6-10): UNC (51%), UND (55%), @ISU (45%), @Weber (5%)
Those are the teams’ remaining schedules, with the projected KenPom win chance percentages for each game. I’m ignoring Montana (15-1) and Weber (14-2), who will obviously finish #1 and #2 in some order, and also ignoring Portland State (5-11) and Idaho State (4-12), who appear firmly ensconced at the bottom (though they’re still mathematically alive for the top 7 — but if UNC has to worry about them, the Bears are in big trouble).
The good news for UNC is that, when you look at the 7-9 trio of Montana State (MSU), Sacramento State (SacSt), and Northern Arizona (NAU), their upcoming schedules — specifically, the games against one another, and against Montana and Weber — mean that, unless somebody pulls a massive upset against one of the top two, at least one of those three teams is guaranteed to finish 8-12 or worse. (Then again, Montana’s injury situation might make an upset somewhat more plausible. But let’s assume not, for the sake of argument.)
Reasonable schedule projections suggest, therefore, that a 9-11 Bears team — meaning a 2-1 finish — is highly likely to finish in the top 7 without the need to consider tiebreakers (though if the one loss is to EWU, that could get a little bit dicier, as a 3-1 finish would then look plausible for the Eagles).
Moreover, the 7-9 teams’ tough schedules mean that even an 8-12 Bears team might have a shot, depending on tiebreakers. I wouldn’t risk going 1-2, though. A 2-1 finish looks like UNC’s postseason ticket. That means, basically, that Northern Colorado needs to win at least one game on the road February 28 or March 1 — preferably the first one, at Eastern Washington. That would be huge.
In essence, what happened last night is that UNC lost its cushion. Had the Bears closed the deal against North Dakota, they probably could have gone 0-2 on their upcoming road trip, provided they beat Southern Utah in the home finale, and still made the postseason. Alternatively, winning a single road game next week would have — barring the unforeseen — virtually secured a postseason spot, potentially taking off the pressure in that SUU game.
Now, that margin for error is gone. Northern Colorado needs to finish strong, with 2 wins in their next 3 games, or they could very well be sitting at home during the Big Sky Tournament for the second straight season.
P.S. One other point to consider: the only thing better than a spot in the top 7… is a spot in the top 6, which means no Weber State or Montana until the semifinals. Unfortunately, snagging a #6 or better seed got a lot less likely last night. Perhaps 2-1 will do it, or perhaps 3-0 will be needed. Regardless, Northern Colorado just needs to go out there and win games.
On another note, since I posted Denver’s earlier in the week, here is Northern Colorado’s “Harlem Shake” video: