GRAND FORKS-The UND men's basketball team was the class of the Big Sky Conference in 2017.
The Fighting Hawks went to the Big Dance behind star Quinton Hooker and a strong supporting cast led by Geno Crandall, Corey Baldwin, Conner Avants and Drick Bernstine.
The 2018 version of the Fighting Hawks, minus Hooker, Baldwin and Bernstine, has been a difficult roller-coaster ride.
The season series against Montana is a perfect example. In Missoula, UND lost by 30 and gave up 109 points.
In the rematch Saturday afternoon, Feb. 3, at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center, the Hawks took the league's best team in the Griz to the wire in an entertaining 72-67 defeat.
It might not be a great consolation prize for fans who have scratched their heads at the Fighting Hawks this season, but UND won't be a treat to play against in March.
UND, now sitting at 3-8 in the league, will have to piece together a great conference tournament in Reno to defend the title.
Against the Griz, UND showed that's not out of the question.
"I was not surprised by their effort and how well they played," Montana coach Travis DeCuire said. "These guys are good at home."
DeCuire said he sees his Montana team of a year ago in the Hawks. He said UND has a few young players trying to get up to speed.
But as the season has played out, UND's complementary young players, notably Billy Brown and Kienan Walter, have made strides.
"They're better in February than they were in January," DeCuire said. "They're going to be good in March, and I hope I don't have to see them."
But the Griz took advantage of UND's lack of size, an issue that developed this season in part thanks to the early transfers of Bernstine and 7-footer Carson Shanks.
Montana big man Jamar Akoh, a thick 6-foot-8 junior transfer from Cal State Fullerton, was the catalyst. He was 10-for-12 from the field for 23 points and 11 rebounds.
UND's biggest hope of an upset came with 2 minutes, 15 seconds left when Akoh went over Avants and tipped a loose ball to Michael Oguine, who scored to push the Griz lead to four.
At a timeout right after the play, UND coach Brian Jones went past the half-court stripe to argue Akoh went over the back of Avants. It would have been Akoh's fifth foul.
Instead, it was only a what-could-have-been moment.
DeCuire was happy to escape with the win on what is regarded as perhaps the toughest road trip in the three time zone Big Sky Conference.
"It's a tough debate over what's the toughest road swing in the league," he said. "It's a quick turnaround. There's the weather. There's a lot that goes into it. To me, this is the toughest. Sometimes it's about your travel partner, too, and Northern Colorado is playing good basketball. You can't just worry about North Dakota."