North Dakota State made a big splash in the NCAA Tournament, beating Oklahoma in their second-round game to advance for a shot at the Sweet 16 against San Diego State. It was a story that captivated a state and, on some level, an entire nation. The win against the Sooners gave NDSU national media exposure unrivaled in the basketball program’s history. This fairytale story finally struck midnight, however, as the Bison fell 63 – 44 to the Aztecs at Spokane’s Veterans Memorial Arena in the third-round of the tournament. The Bison end their historic season 26 – 7.
It was an emotional postgame press conference as Bison head coach Saul Phillips said goodbye to seniors Taylor Braun and Marshall Bjorklund, a pair that have been staples for the Bison since their freshman year. An understandably teary-eyed Phillips called it the greatest week of his professional life. “Only the greatest professional week of my life, got to watch a group of guys that deserved it, and wanted it so bad, made it a priority in their life, did everything I asked them to do, the season, wow.” Phillips endeared himself to fans nationwide as a breath of fresh air that coaches with an exuberance and joy perhaps unrivaled in all of college basketball.
“It’s why I do what I do,” Phillips explained. The euphoria of Thursday was just as suddenly replaced by the reality that he would never coach this year’s six seniors again. “I lose six guys out that door. Charles Barkley can make fun of me now [for crying] it’s fine. Hey, I love these guys. Absolutely love them, love them.”
As per the norm, NDSU’s players were on the same page as their coach. The loss did not hurt the Bison near as much as the realization that the tight-knit group had played their final game together. “As a group, we’re like a family. Mostly losing this game, yes, that hurts, but the biggest thing is leaving my teammates, my younger teammates, behind,” said senior forward TrayVonn Wright, who dazzled Bison fans with highlight reel dunks and athletic plays over the course of the last four years. “We won’t be together as a unit as much anymore. That’s probably the thing that hurts most.”
NDSU simply had no answer for Aztec point guard Xavier Thames. Before the game, Phillips said as Thames goes, so go the Aztecs. Phillips words proved prophetic. Thames torched the Bison for 30 points in turning the lights out on Cinderella’s ball. Whenever the Bison got close and needed a stop, Thames had an answer. “Defensively, I thought we got off to a bad start on Thames,” said Phillips. Thames was nearly single-handedly responsible for the Aztecs 30 – 23 halftime lead, scoring 16 points in the opening half, including hitting 4-of-5 three pointers. “He got going early, we missed some switches, did some things uncharacteristic with us. That kid had a couple moves, let’s put it this way, we don’t have anybody that can simulate it in practice.”
The game was much closer than the 19-point final score. For much of the first half, the teams traded baskets, with NDSU taking a 20 – 15 lead on a Bjorklund layup with 6:11 left in the half. The Aztecs, however, closed the half on a 15 – 3 run. “They’re a good defensive team, but, to be honest, … for me personally, I felt like I missed a bunch of shots I usually knock down,” said Braun. Braun, who averages 18.2 points per game, was held to three first half points by the Aztecs on 1-for-10 shooting. Braun finished the game with seven points, going 2-for-14 from the field. “That’s disappointing for me, just being on this stage and not being able to perform like I know I’m capable of, yeah. Not how we wanted to go out I guess.”
While NDSU struggled to find a rhythm on offense, they managed to stay within striking distance for much of the second half, closing the gap to 49 – 42 on a nifty Bjorklund post-move with 6:18 remaining in the game. Unfortunately, that was as close as the Bison would get. Thames, like he did all day, responded on the other end, knocking down a tough mid-range jumper giving SDSU a 51-42 lead. “They were just really long, really long and athletic,” said Lawrence Alexander, who, after scoring 28 points against Oklahoma on Thursday, was held to three points on a single three pointer against the Aztecs. “Going into the game, we knew that, but actually being out there and playing against it are two different things.”
Braun and Alexander weren’t alone in their offensive woes. The Aztecs defense, the second-rated defensive unit in the country, locked the Bison down, limiting NDSU to 15-for-47 from the field, translating to a season low 31.9 field goal percentage. The Bison entered the game leading the NCAA in shooting, but the shots wouldn’t fall for the Bison as many bunnies fell agonizingly off the rim. “It seemed like for most of our guys we were getting some looks on the block, especially in the second half,” Bjorklund said. The Bison tried several offensive approaches without finding success. “Their length bothered us. There’s no question about that. They are an excellent defensive team. We tried looking at it from a couple different angles,” Phillips said, describing the offensive struggle.
While Saturday’s game didn’t turn in NDSU’s favor, the Bison leave Spokane with plenty to be proud of. By taking down Oklahoma, NDSU notched the Summit League’s first tournament win since 1998 when the league was known as the Mid-Continent Conference. “My group leaves here champions,” said Phillips. There were also more national news stories on NDSU than, in all likelihood, any other team in the tournament. It’s a weekend that will propel NDSU athletics and Bison basketball to new heights. “We made history for our school,” Braun noted, leaving NDSU as one of the best players in program history. “We have never done this before, that’s something that I’ll always remember that I had a part in that.”
Phillips had a final message for Bison Nation, indicating he expects big things out of this program in coming years. “I expect great things out of this program in the future. It’s hard to think about the future at this exact moment. I expect great things out of this program.” Guys like Braun, Bjorklund and Wright laid the groundwork to build on. “We’re going to build, we’re going to get better, we’re going to have better facilities, we’re going to work harder,” concluded Phillips. “I won’t guarantee we’ll be back here, but I think if we do what we did with this group, we have got a pretty good template to give it an effort.”