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Geno Crandall (0) goes in for a dunk in the first half of Wednesday's game against UC Irvine at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald1 / 4
Carson Shanks(5) goes in for two with Dominique Dunning (24) attempting a block in the first half of Wednesday's game at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald2 / 4
UC Irvine's Mamadou Ndiaye (34) towers over Conner Avants (32) at the tip off with UND pulling away with the ball at Wednesday's game at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald3 / 4
Luke Nelson (10) and Brandon Smith (13) help Mamadou Ndiaye (34) off the court after an injury to his ankle in the first half of Wednesday's game at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald4 / 4

UND’s last two games of this season won’t be forgotten any time soon.

However, the final two games of the season may lead to a brighter future for the Fighting Hawks.

In a highly competitive and entertaining game, UC Irvine outlasted UND 89-86 in overtime Wednesday night in the first round of the Tournament before 1,263 fans at The Betty.

The loss came on the heels of UND’s five-point OT loss against Weber State last week in the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference tournament in Reno, Nev. Weber went on to win the Big Sky and qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

UND, a team that struggled early because of youth, finished with a strong second half of the season and ended at 17-16, while UCI -- a team with a chip on its shoulder after being snubbed by the NIT -- advances with a 26-9 record.

“It was a high-level game,” said UND coach Brian Jones. “Both teams played really hard and both were really prepared. We got quality shots in regulation and overtime and that’s all you can ever want. You can’t control whether the ball goes in but you can control the quality of looks you get.”

And UND did have its share of good looks at the basket in a game that saw 14 ties and 15 lead changes. No more than six points separated the teams at any point.

UND’s Quinton Hooker had a chance to win it in regulation but his rushed 15-footer was off the mark at the buzzer. Twice in the final four seconds of overtime, Gene Crandall, who led UND with 22 points, launched 3-point attempts from the right side. But both were off the mark.

“It’s about finishing,” said Hooker, who finished with 15 points. “You just have to make a shot and I didn’t do that. The team trusted me to make shots. Sometimes, you just don’t make them.”

Perhaps the game’s biggest shot came from UCI’s Luke Nelson, who drained a long 3-pointer early in overtime. That tied the game at 83-83. It helped take the crowd out of the game and led to 6-foot-10 Mike Best’s inside basket for an 87-83 lead with 3:03 to go. UND could get no closer than two points the rest of the way.

Best led UCI with 22 points. Alex Young, scoring on slick drives to the basket, added 19, while Nelson ended with 18, making 4 of 9 three-point attempts.

“Good players make tough shots this late in the year,” said Jones.

The game pitted UND’s athleticism on the perimeter against UCI’s size, notably 7-6 Mamadou Ndiaye, the tallest player in college basketball.

The Anteaters scored 52 points in the paint to UND’s 22. Ndiaye, however, played only eight minutes, suffering an apparent knee injury after a collision with UND’s 7-footer, Carson Shanks.

“That was an unfortunate play,” said UCI coach Russell Turner. “I didn’t like that play very well. But I understand it. Hopefully, he’ll by OK. Teams play Mamadou physical. He was coming down the floor and a kid came over and chucked him. I’m surprised the referees didn’t call a foul. (Ndiaye) was angry about it because he didn’t expect it and it knocked him off balance. I don’t think it was a dirty play but it was an unfortunate play.

“It was a difficult thing for our team to endure.”

But UCI has experience, and that, said Turner, may have been the difference.
“I’ve got a veteran team and that probably was the difference in the game,” said Turner. “Give North Dakota credit. They’re building something good here. They have a young squad. They played hard, harder than we did at times. But having been in so many close games this year gave us a believe we could win. We made one or two more plays than they did. We got defensive stops down the stretch and that’s been our identity.”

UND played 10 players, and nine scored. All nine return return next season.

“I can’t be more proud of our guys for the year they had and the effort they showed tonight,” said Jones. “This group will continue to do special things in the offseason and we’ll continue to do special things next season.”

UCI, with is high RPI (No. 75), likely will get a bye in the second round of the tournament.

For UND, it’s time to think about next season.

“We know where we have to be at,” said Hooker. “Everyone has felt what Division I basketball is all about. This offseason, we’ll have to put in a lot of work.”

Wayne Nelson
Nelson is the sports editor of the Herald
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