Saul Phillips said there was only one proper end to this storybook. The No. 1-seeded NDSU men’s basketball team got that ending and what an ending it was. It took the Bison until the last minute of the game to grab the lead and hold on to it for good in a thrilling 60-57 victory against No. 2 Fort Wayne in Tuesday’s Summit League championship game in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The Bison will now get to add another chapter to their storybook by punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, the first appearance for the school since 2009.
“Stay calm, be us,” Phillips said was the message to his team. “We were trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer for goodness sakes, just slow down and let it come to you.”
With a struggling shooting percentage that didn’t allow the Bison to grab a steady lead in the back-and-forth game, it wasn’t until just over one minute left in the game when NDSU took a lead they would not relinquish. All thanks to the conference Player of the Year and tournament MVP Taylor Braun.
Braun scored 10 of NDSU’s final 12 points in clutch moments. Braun sank two free throws to tie the game at 51, hit a deep three as the shot clock expired to give NDSU a 54-53 lead with over two minutes remaining, made a layup that put the Bison back up 56-55 and then completed an acrobatic, one-handed layup and foul to essentially seal the game for NDSU with a 59-55 lead with 12 seconds remaining.
“I knew I was going to be able to get to the lane,” Braun said on the and-one play. “(Steve Forbes) was sagging off all of our ball screens all game so I knew I was going to be able to get there … jump stop, pump fake and I knew he was going to go up. I honestly was expecting I was gonna go to the free throw line, threw it up and it somehow went in.”
It wasn’t so smooth sailing in the first 36 minutes of the game, though. The Bison shot 40 percent from the field and 27 percent from behind the arc in the first half and those struggles continued into the second half. But even with an offense unable to get on a run, NDSU never trailed by more than five points in the second half. TrayVonn Wright was a big reason for that.
Wright led NDSU with 19 points off 8-of-13 shooting, with several of those shots being key in stopping an IPFW run.
But it was Braun coming alive in the closing minutes that pushed NDSU to the win.
“My teammates and my coaching staff stayed confident in me and they all believe in me and coming down the stretch, you have to suck it up and get the job done,” Braun said.
In a bit of a déjà vu moment, the play that resulted in Braun’s and-one was the same play drawn up for Ben Woodside when he hit the game-winning shot in the 2009 title game for NDSU. Both shots are the signature scores that sent the Bison to the Big Dance.
“I’m sitting up here with some seniors, one that carried us through that game almost the entire way with TrayVonn, and one that finished it off with a play that was eerily similar to 2009,” Phillips said.
NDSU’s run of success this season will hit the NCAA Tournament as a probable 13 seed, although some have them as a 12 seed with NDSU’s high RPI. The Bison are 25-6 with a high-major win over Notre Dame this season. The veteran team of six seniors had their eye on making the NCAA Tournament since losing in the Summit League title game last year, making for an emotional postgame celebration.
NDSU finds out its seed, opponent and location of the game in the selection show at 5 p.m. Sunday on CBS. But until then, Braun said the Bison will enjoy this win, even if they couldn’t yet put into words what it meant for them. Their head coach knew exactly how the championship feels, though.
“I know what I feel right now: pure exhilaration,” Phillips said.