By – Joshua A. Swanson
It was almost one year ago to the day, March 12, 2013. North Dakota State had just suffered a stinging 73 – 67 defeat to South Dakota State in the Summit League Tournament championship game. Taylor Braun sat at the dais during the postgame press conference and left no mistake about NDSU’s intentions for 2014. Braun’s statement was as powerful as it was short – he guaranteed the Bison were coming back in 2014 and winning the tournament. Braun and his teammates made good on that guarantee Tuesday night. NDSU punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament with a 60 – 57 victory over Indiana Purdue- Fort Wayne on the back of Braun’s late-game heroics.
Up by one in the game’s closing seconds, Braun took matters into his own hands. During a timeout, Braun told Bison head coach Saul Phillips that he wanted the ball and a chance to close out the Mastodons. “He had more flowery adjectives than Chitwood,” said Phillips, referring to the star of the iconic team from Milan, Ind., who clinched a state title with a last-second shot in the classic basketball movie Hoosiers. “He [Braun] said run the play, and I’ll rip that up. It was a no-brainer, you see a guy with that kind of conviction.” When asked what exactly he said, Braun, grinning ear-to-ear with one of the game nets draped around his neck, joked that it probably shouldn’t be repeated. “I don’t think it should be repeated. I said run vert, a high ball screen, I’m going to mess Forbes up.”
Braun started with the ball in almost the same spot on the Sioux Falls Arena court where Ben Woodside began his legendary late-game winner in 2009. Moving from the left side by midcourt, Braun drove strong down the right side of the lane. Near the low block, Braun did a jump stop and pump fake. IPFW big man Steve Forbes bit on the pump fake, leaving his feet in anticipation of the shot. Braun went up, knowing he was going to draw the foul. And, like Woodside’s shot, the rest will live on in Bison lore for years to come.
While mid-air, Braun released an off-balanced three-footer that somehow found its way to the bottom of the net. “I knew I was going to get to the lane,” said Braun. “I got a half step by [Forbes], jump stop, pump fake, and I knew he was going to go up. I knew I was going to go to the free throw line. I just threw it up and it went in.”
Braun’s old fashioned three-point play gave the Bison a 59 – 55 lead with 12 seconds left. The four point lead was NDSU’s largest of the night. After an IPFW basket, NDSU inbounded the ball to Kory Brown with 2.2 seconds separating the Bison from a championship. Brown made the frontend of the double bonus free throws for the final 60 – 57 margin. A last second, desperation three-quarter court heave by IPFW missed the mark. Bison fans wasted no time in storming the court, celebrating NDSU’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2009.
A large Bison crowd filled Sioux Falls Arena, many making the trip south from Fargo, all expecting an NDSU championship and spot in the NCAA Tournament. After Monday’s semifinal win over Denver, Phillips summed up the feeling for the NDSU faithful. “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. This season has been like a storybook and it feels like the only way it ends right is with us cutting down the nets tomorrow. That’s how it feels to us.” And cut down the nets they did, but not before overcoming a tough start.
After shooting the lights out in the first half against Denver, the Bison struggled from the field against IPFW. NDSU was 12-for-30 on field goals in the opening half and trailed 35 – 30 at intermission. “We weren’t as patient as we were yesterday,” said TrayVonn Wright. Wright, named to the Summit League all-tournament team, finished as the game’s leading scorer with 19 points. “We were impatient, we wanted to win, like, right now, we didn’t want to wait.” Phillips agreed with his senior forward. At the half, Phillips told his guys to stay cool. “Stay cool, be us. I saw so many plays, we were trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer, slow down and let it come to you. My message was you still got time here guys.”
If Braun finished as the game’s hero, it was Wright that kept NDSU in the game for the first 35 minutes. “I’m sitting up here with seniors, one who carried us through almost the whole way in TrayVonn, and one who finished it for us, eerily, in the same way as 2009,” Phillips said of his two stars. Braun credited Wright for putting him in position for the game winner. “We wouldn’t have been there if Tray wouldn’t have carried us the whole way, you played your butt off, I love you,” Braun said to Wright when asked to describe his performance. Wright added three steals and four rebounds against the Mastodons.
Just like Braun in 2013, Wright made a promise this year to his biggest fan. “I told my son I’m not coming back home without a trophy,” Wright said. “That’s what I set my mind to. I told Taylor on the bench, come on, it’s time for you to come up and finish it.” NDSU finds out who they’ll play in the NCAA Tournament this Sunday at 5 p.m., when the brackets are revealed by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee on ESPN. “We’ve got a special group, we’ve been through a lot together,” said Braun. This has been an incredibly hard journey for us. A lot of us were overlooked coming out of high school … this means the world to us.”