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UND taking on the Big Sky's best

Photo by John Stennes / Forum News Service University of North Dakota's Aaron Anderson sails past Montana's Keron DeShields on a drive to the basket in Big Sky Conference basketball game Jan. 10 in Grand Forks.

GRAND FORKS -- The first part of the season was miserable for the University of North Dakota's Troy Huff. He broke his jaw in UND's season-opener at Kansas State and missed the next eight games.

He's now back at full strength. As a result, UND is beginning to flex a little muscle in its first season in the Big Sky Conference.

Speaking of muscle, one of the Big Sky powers is scheduled to play UND tonight at The Betty. Weber State takes on UND in a game that North Dakota hopes to use as a springboard to start the second half of the league season.

"Whenever we get a chance to play one of the top teams in the league, it's a test," said Huff, who leads the Big Sky in scoring with a 20.1 ppg average. "It's a test. This gives a chance to see where we're at. We played well at Northern Arizona and we feel we have a lot of momentum going into the game."

UND perhaps picked up its most significant win of the season last week at NAU. UND trailed by 22 points midway through the first half but rallied to win 81-79 -- the winning points coming on Huff's putback with three seconds left.

"That was one of the craziest games I've ever played in," Huff said.

The win gave UND a 5-5 Big Sky record at the midway point of the league season. And UND has won four of its last five. UND also is 4-1 since Huff returned to the starting lineup.

Weber State and Montana were regarded as the teams to beat at the start of the season. That hasn't changed at the midway point. Montana is 10-0 in the league while Weber is 8-2 -- its losses coming on the road at Montana State and Montana.

The Wildcats lead the league in scoring (76.8 ppg) and are the top shooting team in the Big Sky (50.2 percent). Defensively, they hold teams to 30 percent shooting -- a league best.

Junior Davion Berry (14.1 ppg) leads Weber. Last season, it was the Damian Lillard show at Weber. Lillard was the sixth overall selection in last year's NBA draft and is on pace for rookie of the year honors with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Weber rolled past UND 95-63 earlier this month in Ogden, Utah.

But UND coach Brian Jones said a lot has changed since.

"We didn't play well there," he said. "It was a couple of things. We were excited about getting our first league road win (at Idaho State) two nights earlier. We didn't approach the game the right way mentally.

"But Weber was playing a high, high level."

The Wildcats, along with Montana, are still playing at a high level, Jones said.

UND's mission is to see if it can compete at that level.

"My feeling is that a team can win this league with two or three losses. Our mindset is different. It's about ourselves. We have to show that we can play better against teams like that."

And UND also learned a valuable lesson last week at NAU that Jones hopes his team can use in the second half of the season.

"More than anything," he said, "that game should be a teaching point that the college game is such a long game. Anything can happen if you stay the course."