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MEN'S BASKETBALL: Tall, tall challenge

After its NCAA Tournament hopes were dashed in the Big Sky Conference tournament by eventual champion Weber State, the Fighting Hawks still had a pretty good feeling postseason play of some kind remained a possibility.

The postseason invitation indeed arrived Sunday when UND (17-15) was included in Tournament.

The CIT wasn't a surprise. The opponent, however, was a big surprise.

UND will play UC Irvine on Wednesday at The Betty in a first-round CIT game. UC Irvine will be one of the strongest non-conference teams UND has played at home as the Anteaters—yes, Anteaters—surprisingly were left out of the NIT field.

UC Irvine is 25-9. The Anteaters shared the regular-season Big West Conference title with Hawaii but fell to Long Beach State in league's postseason tournament over the weekend.

"I'm shocked they're in the CIT," said UND coach Brian Jones. "They won 25 games and that's really, really hard to do. They're a veteran, experienced team."

Most league champions that don't qualify for the NCAA Tournament usually wind up in the NIT.

The Anteaters also have the tallest player in the country in 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye, a first-team all-Big West selection. The junior averages 12.4 points and 7.2 rebounds. He's blocked 84 shots this season and is UCI's career leader with 215.

UC Irvine shared the regular-season Big West title with Hawaii with 13-3 records. Hawaii won the Big West to advance to the NCAA Tournament. UC Irvine also has a 10-4 road record this season and its 25 wins tied the program's single-season record for victories.

"We're getting a great non-league opponent in this building, which is exciting," added Jones.

UND, meanwhile, is coming off a strong showing at last week's Big Sky tournament in Reno, Nev.

UND went 2-1 in the tournament, reaching the semifinals falling to Weber in overtime.

"The season as a whole has been great," said Jones. "Our kids are a joy to coach. Getting to 17 wins after last season (8 wins) is really good. Really, we got there because of our chemistry and our guys' willingness to get better every day.

"We don't want this season to end because it's been so much fun. And we're really appreciative of our administration for getting us this home game."

UND spent roughly two weeks on the road before returning home Sunday. On Monday, the Fighting Hawks were back at practice, preparing for a 7-6 center and the possibility of winning their first postseason game of their Division I era.

"It's a great feeling, especially after last year," said UND junior guard Quinton Hooker. "And playing at home is even better."

UND players also were surprised they will face UC Irvine, which dropped a two-point decision to Louisville in last year's NCAA Tournament.

"When you're a co-champion of a league, you'd think they'd go to the NIT," said Hooker. "But we're excited about playing a big opponent at home."

Wayne Nelson
Nelson is the sports editor of the Herald
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