SPOKANE, Wash. -- If someone is a North Dakota State fan, chances are they’re a football fan. Even with the success of the basketball team this season, it seems as though it can’t get through any interview without the inevitable "Do you feel like you’re making NDSU relevant outside of football?" or "Have any of the football players talked with you about how to handle the success?" questions.
Thursday was no different in that regard. Senior Taylor Braun sat in the locker room after his team’s 80-75 overtime upset over Oklahoma and a reporter pitched him a similar question. He smiled, answered and got on. Even after the school’s first NCAA tournament victory, people want to talk about football, but he didn't let it get to him.
Braun had just finished playing the biggest game of his career. In front of 10,000 people who got behind his team, the Bison battled, coming back from four down with 38 seconds to go and charging through an overtime victory.
When time expired, every player on the bench ran onto the floor, and the players on the floor ran to the baseline. Coach Saul Phillips opened his arms for someone to hug but ended up running in a circle before finding the handshake line.
"The whole experience was unbelievable," Braun said. "Just the atmosphere was 100 times greater than I expected. Just the intensity. Everything about the game was unbelievable."
The win was in just the second tournament appearance for the Bison, whose first was in 2009. But even on the stage, they seemed unfazed.
Before the game, they were relaxed. During the game, they were relaxed. After the game, they were elated (and exhausted) as they laughed and joked their way through a news conference.
The Bison are happy to be here, and there’s no reason to act like that’s a bad thing. They enjoy playing basketball and playing together, and anyone who watched Thursday night’s matchup saw that.
It’s refreshing to see a team that makes basketball look like it’s the best thing it has ever done, not like it’s a 9-to-5 job that it's been forced into. It’s refreshing to see a coach win a game and want to hug anyone within arm’s reach. North Dakota State is refreshing and is one of the reasons March Madness is so enjoyable.
"I just want to keep coaching this team," Phillips said. "I don’t want to say goodbye to this locker room. I’m looking forward to the pregame meal on Saturday. I’m looking forward to the moments that maybe you guys don’t see, because I have an appreciation for this group."
Phillips is happy to be back, happy to get a win. And he shouldn’t be admonished for wanting to talk about that, because he crafted a team that is not only happy to be in the Big Dance, but one that belongs in the Big Dance.
They lead the nation in field goal percentage, and the main criticism this season was that they’re in a league in which they don’t face competition that’s good enough to challenge that.
Against Oklahoma, they shot even better than their season average. North Dakota State knocked down 52.9 percent of its shots (50.9 percent on the season) and won this game the same way it won the other 25 this season -- excellent shooting, strong post play and guts.
Their 27 makes from the floor is the exact number of their season average, and their six 3-pointers was right at their season average of 5.4.
In the paint, the Bison snatched up 38 rebounds (season average is 32.9) and they dished out 12 assists (season average is 10), so it’s not as though they threw anything against the Sooners that was a total surprise. They are what they are, and that’s certainly the way they played.
But it was a new stage for the Bison. Playing on a stage that no current NDSU player had every played on could’ve been an overwhelming experience, and, as Oklahoma charged back in the final minutes of regulation, it looked as though the Bison would sink back to their mid-major status.
Based on the seedings, that would’ve been the expectation. The Bison knew it. Phillips knew it. He knows there’s more pressure on the 5-seed in this situation, saying that if the Bison would’ve lost, "everybody would have been disappointed back home for a night, and then they would’ve talked about how great of a season we had."
But, instead, the Bison knocked down four field goals and were a perfect 6-of-6 from the free throw line. It was the second 5-12 upset of the day in Spokane, with 12th-seeded Harvard taking down fifth-seeded Cincinnati earlier in the day.
"Everybody on this team is extremely excited right now," Braun said. "We’re just trying to soak in every moment of this. This doesn’t come around to anybody every year or anything like that. We put a lot of hard work in to get here, and we’re just trying to enjoy this and soak up every moment that we can."