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Wayne Nelson / Forum News Service, Published March 13 2013

UND has had March success under Jones

MISSOULA, Mont. – Under seventh-year coach Brian Jones, the University of North Dakota has somehow managed to play its best basketball in the month of March.

Jones led UND through a difficult Division I transition, yet his team won back-to-back Great West Conference postseason titles in 2011 and 2012. Last season, UND trailed by 16 points in the semifinal round of the Great West and again at halftime in the title game – yet won both.

Despite its new home in the Big Sky Conference, UND again appears to be peaking at the right time.

Jones and his UND team, however, faces yet another question today as the Big Sky postseason tournament begins at Dahlberg Arena. Can UND continue its strong postseason play in a better league and on a bigger stage?

UND, the No. 3 seed, takes on No. 6 Southern Utah at 6:30 p.m. in a quarterfinal game.

“We’re playing very good basketball,” Jones said. “We’ve won 11 of our last 15 games; we’re playing at a high level and at the right time.

“We’ve been a team that wants to continue to brand ourselves and prove that we belong. That won’t change against Southern Utah.”

UND and Southern Utah split this season, with North Dakota winning 68-61 last week at The Betty.

While UND comes in with momentum, the opposite is true for the Thunderbirds – who lost their final seven Big Sky games.

Still, the challenge today will be difficult as UND has not had any easy wins in the second half of the Big Sky season. And it will face a physical team, one that will try to limit UND’s athleticism on the perimeter.

UND’s main goal this season was to prove it belongs in the Big Sky.

“That’s what we wanted when we came into this league,” Jones said. “We didn’t want to be a program that showed up in the first year and finished in the middle of the pack. We wanted to come in and make some noise and prove to people, like we did through the transition, that we’re a pretty good basketball program and we have good players.”

UND’s accomplishments in the Big Sky have been impressive.

The Green and White:

E Won 12 Big Sky regular-season games, the most by any first-year member. UND’s 12-8 record produced a third-place finish in the regular season.

E Captured six league road wins, including its last three. Outside of

Montana and Weber State, no other league member can make that claim.

E Overcame double-digit deficits on the road three times to win at Northern Arizona, Montana State and Northern Colorado.

In the last two-plus seasons, UND is 10-2 in the month of March.

But this weekend’s tournament will be UND’s biggest challenge of its Division I men’s basketball era.

The winner earns a ticket the NCAA tournament. Top-seeded Montana won last season’s tournament and has won 29 straight league games in Dahlberg Arena. Weber State is the only team that has defeated Montana in league play this season, and the No. 2-seeded Wildcats have the best chance to knock out the Grizzlies on their home floor.

But UND, now eligible for the NCAA tournament, wants to see where it stacks up with the ultimate goal three wins away.

“We’ve worked hard in the offseason so we could come in and make some noise,” said UND junior guard Aaron Anderson. “We’ve made it to the tournament. Now we have to go out and win it.

“But this late in the season, all the games will be close. We have to defend and execute on offense.”

The last two years in the Great West, however, could help UND, said Anderson.

UND also enters this weekend’s tournament in good health – a surprise.

Nelson is the sports editor for the Grand Forks Herald