Marshall Bjorklund stood after the game, embraced by his teammates, with a very visible shiner underneath his left eye. It’s probably the best black and blue eye the farm kid from Arlington, Minn., has ever had. Punch-for-punch, North Dakota State withstood Oklahoma’s chargers. And when the final bell sounded, it was the Bison emerging victorious over the Sooners, 80 – 75, in the overtime thriller. “I guess down low it was almost like a bar fight,” said Bjorklund, who finished with 13 points, including several big free throws down the stretch to keep the game within NDSU’s reach.
It was the schools’ first ever NCAA Tournament win. What does it mean for the Bison? It’s tough to put it into words. It instantly joins the shortlist of the most significant victories not just in NDSU history, but the history of the entire state of North Dakota, all sports, all schools. Program-defining moment. Program-changing moment. Whatever you want to call it, it means the Bison advance to play Saturday for a chance at the Sweet 16. “That was — the whole experience was unbelievable,” said Taylor Braun, who, like Bjorklund, showed the signs of the physical matchup with a five-inch gash on his right arm and a shiner on his forehead after a Sooner’s player inadvertently kicked him in the face in overtime. “Just the atmosphere was a hundred times greater than I expected. Just the intensity, everything about the game was unbelievable. “
Playing the role of the underdog, it was the Bison who came out swinging early. NDSU closed the first half with an 11 – 0 run and entered the locker room with a 37 – 29 lead, holding the Sooners scoreless in the final 3:27 of the half. “I think they did a good job just controlling the defensive end,” said Oklahoma guard Cameron Clark. Clark led the way for the Sooners with his 25 points. “They played great defense. The second half, I felt like we came out and did a better job offensively, but credit them, they got the win.” It was NDSU’s first ever win against a Big XII opponent. The Bison are now 1 – 7 against Big XII teams since joining Division I in 2004. NDSU has won ten in a row, their last loss coming at Denver on February 1. It was also NDSU’s first win over a Top 25 team since 2006. The Sooners entered the game as the No. 20 team in the country.
A TrayVonn Wright jumper gave the Bison a 56 – 50 lead with 6:37 left in regulation. The Sooners chipped away, though, eventually taking a 62 – 61 lead on a pair of Isaiah Cousins free throws at the 1:29 mark. After a Braun layup fell off the rim, a Clark jumper with 58 seconds left in regulation pushed Oklahoma’s lead to 64 – 61. NDSU failed to convert on the offensive end, turning the ball over, and the Sooners put themselves in position for the knockout. Fortunately, for the Bison, on the ensuing Sooners possession, Jordan Woodard converted only one of two free throws, giving the Bison an opening. Trailing 65 – 61, Braun hit a pair of free throws to narrow the gap to 65 – 63 with 31 seconds remaining.
Again, the Bison were forced to foul the Sooners. And, again, the Sooners made only one of two free throws, setting the stage for the biggest shot in NDSU history. With 17 seconds on the clock, trailing 66 – 63, the Bison called a timeout. NDSU head coach Saul Phillips drew up a play for Braun. With the Sooners locked down on Braun, Braun made the biggest pass of his life, finding Lawrence Alexander infront of the Bison bench on the right wing. Alexander nailed a three-pointer, tying the game at 66 and sending the sellout crowd at Spokane’s Veterans Memorial Arena to their feet. “For L.A. to knock that thing down at that particular moment,” Phillips said. “And I’ve always kind of felt like I could trust him when it really came down to it. One time, I was kidding him about having to stare down a late free throw, and he looked at me and goes, ‘pressure bursts pipes.’ That’s all he said and walked away. I don’t know what it means to this day, but God bless him.”
The shot sent the game into overtime where NDSU jumped out to a quick four-point lead on a Bjorklund layup and Alexander jumper. The Sooners fought back to tie things at 70 – 70 on a Clark three-pointer. A Braun layup and pair of Clark free throws knotted things at 72 with 1:17 left in the extra session. Braun fouled out on the free throws and freshman Carlin Dupree entered in his place. Dupree played less than a minute in the first half, but stole the show infront of a national audience when it mattered most. Dribbling up the court, Dupree broke Oklahoma’s press and was fouled. The freshman had nerves of steel, connecting on both free throws to give NDSU a 74 – 72 lead with 1:14 remaining. “Carlin Dupree just made the – played the loudest two minutes in the history of the NCAA basketball tournament. Carlin just smashed all over this,” said Phillips.
After forcing a defensive stop, Dupree did his best Braun impersonation, driving the ball strong to the rim and connecting on a layup to give NDSU a 76 – 72 lead with 39 seconds left. From there, the rest is history, as the Sooners failed to convert on offense and Alexander connected true on all four of his free throws to send the Bison to the tournament’s third round where they’ll play No. 4 San Diego State. “We stuck together as a team and all season long I’ve always been saying, if somebody’s not playing well, that’s no problem because someone else on the team is going to pick it up,” said Braun in describing Alexander’s performance. “Lawrence Alexander did that times 12 today.”
As for Saturday, a win will propel NDSU to the Sweet 16. To put that in perspective, college basketball royalty Duke lost their opening round game of the tournament to Mercer. While the Blue Devils are going home, the Bison are still dancing. NDSU plays the Aztecs at 5:10 on Saturday afternoon. Appropriately, after the physical game with the Sooners, Bjorklund summed things up with a boxer’s mentality. “We’ll come out swinging like we did tonight on Saturday.”