Photos By Inertia Sports Media
Things weren’t looking good for North Dakota State. Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne, the Summit League regular season champion, was firing on all cylinders and on the verge of sending the Bison back to Fargo without a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. The Mastodons led by as many as 18 points late in the first half and took a 15 point lead into halftime. While the Bison managed to find some rhythm offensively in the second half, they still trailed the Dons 64-54 with just 4:18 left in the semifinal contest.
Then March happened. The Bison staged a furious rally where they scratched, clawed, and threw everything they had at IPFW to do the improbable – advance to a fourth straight Summit League tournament championship game. “There was some adversity today with Paul’s situation and with Kory Brown in foul trouble, but we kept believing and kept fighting and kept controlling what we could control in the second half,” said Bison head coach David Richman. The Bison were without their leading scorer, Paul Miller, who was suspended before the game for what Richman described as Miller’s failing to meet team standards.
With Miller suspended and Brown fouling out with 9:36 remaining, NDSU faced a 13-point deficit when conference player of the year Max Landis knocked down a three-pointer to give the Dons a 53-40 lead. The teams traded baskets the next five minutes before a Brent Calhoun layup pushed IPFW’s lead to 10 points with four minutes and change left. That’s when the March Magic really heated up. Enter, stage right, Carlin Dupree. The junior from Milwaukee, Wis., who’s no stranger to late-game heroics in March – like when he came from nowhere to put the Bison on his shoulders in an overtime upset of the Oklahoma Sooners two years ago – drilled a must-have three-pointer to cut the gap to 64-57.
“When we’re down 15, telling guys keep your head up and keep fighting and anything can happen,” said Dupree. Dupree scored a career-high 22 points on 8-for-11 shooting, leading all scorers. Like so many times before, you could feel the momentum under March’s bright lights shifting towards the Bison. “It’s toughness and togetherness. I think you lock in and believe in those things more so this time of the year,” explained Richman.
After IPFW missed a jumper, Chris Kading tipped in a Khy Kabellis layup to make it 64-59. That’s when the Bison rally went into overdrive. Following a Landis miss on the other end, Kabellis took a handoff from Dupree and buried a three from the left wing in front of NDSU’s bench and, after trailing by 18 points, the Bison were within a single bucket, 64-62. “My nerves kind of controlled me last game, but Coach Dave told me before the game to just go out and play my hardest and believe in myself and I just tried to do that,” Kabellis said. The freshman, playing in his second tournament game, looked every part a seasoned veteran, finishing with 19 points.
“These two in particular (Dupree and Kabellis) and the rest of our group, I’m so proud of them,” said Richman. The Bison would tie the game at 65-65 on an A.J. Jacobson three with 2:08 left. IPFW wasn’t done, not quite yet. Landis responded on the ensuing possession with a stone-cold three-pointer to give the Dons a 68-65 lead. IPFW had a chance to put the game away when the teams exchanged misses with under a minute left, that is, until Dexter Werner had the steal of his career, picking the pocket of the Dons’ point guard near the top of the opposite key. Werner found Dupree, who, with 43 seconds on the clock, split several IPFW defenders for a layup, pulling the Bison to within a point at 68-67.
Needing a stop, Werner corralled a Landis miss to setup the game’s final possession. Again, it would be Dupree. Dupree took a pass from Jacobson near the right wing, drove to his left, switched direction going hard right, and got to the rim where he made the game-winning layup. It was NDSU’s first and only lead of the game coming with only four seconds left. “I looked up and heard coach say just go, and I just kind of made a play,” Dupree said. A desperation heave by Landis bounced off the backboard and NDSU continued its march towards a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance. “Ultimately they made more plays than us,” said IPFW head coach Jon Coffman. “It was a gradual grind back into the game. You know, I have to give them credit, they did a really good job of just continuing to grind, grind, grind. They didn’t put their heads down.”
Both Dupree and Richman were quick to point to the program’s culture as the difference in the comeback. “Just the culture of this program, we’re going to stick together and fight and go down swinging,” explained Dupree. Richman added, “I wouldn’t do the program justice if I didn’t talk about Woodside, Moormann, Braun, Bjorklund, TrayVonn and Lawrence – all the guys that laid the foundation and set an example of what this culture is all about.” That culture has NDSU back in the Summit League championship game for a fourth consecutive year.
To get back to the Big Dance, the Bison face a familiar foe in South Dakota State, who they’ve played in two of the previous three title games. The teams split their regular season matchups with each winning at home. Last year, the Bison beat the Jacks 57-56 to earn their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Tip-off is at 8 p.m., with the game broadcast on ESPN2.