North Dakota State looked on as Nate Wolters made two more free throws, icing the Summit League championship for South Dakota State.
The buzzer sounded, and, although North Dakota State began the conference season 7-0, South Dakota State would represent the Summit League at the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.
North Dakota State, which returned every significant player on its roster this season, has its eyes set on returning to the same stage and redeeming last year’s defeat with a championship and NCAA Tournament bid.
“You can’t have a better feeling than winning that final game and going to the NCAA Tournament, and I’m not sure you could have a worse feeling than losing it,” North Dakota State head coach Saul Phillips said. “And that fuels our guys.”
Senior guard Taylor Braun, who leads the team in scoring, assists and steals, said that loss remains is still on their minds.
“It’s no secret to anybody on the team, or anybody at all, that that’s the goal,” Braun said. “We’ll be extremely let down if we don’t get there. But we don’t talk about it. We take it one game at a time or else we’re going to slip up.”
“[A conference championship] has been my goal since I got here,” senior forward TrayVonn Wright added.
With their top eight scorers and rebounders returning, the Bison were pegged the preseason favorite in the Summit League. They lived up to the billing in non-conference play with an 11-4 record and a Dec. 11 win at Notre Dame, but they quickly stumbled in conference, falling to IPFW by 11 points in their opener.
Saturday, they returned to form with an 87-64 whopping of IUPUI.
“We had a slow start,” Braun said. “But I think coming back from the long Christmas break, we’re getting our feet back under us.”
In addition to Braun and Wright, North Dakota State sports two more seniors in its top six players: Marshall Bjorklund and Mike Felt.
Bjorklund, who leads North Dakota State’s starters in offensive rating, has become an icon of efficiency to anyone who follows mid-major college basketball. The 6’8″ forward has been dominant and crafty around the basket thanks to impeccable footwork, never shooting lower than 64.7% from the field in a season.
This year, he ranks No. 3 in the nation at 67.1%, only behind Duquesne junior Dominique McKoy. Bjorklund has never finished a season lower than No. 6 nationally, and that streak figures to continue as a senior.
Felt has cemented his name as one of college basketball’s best long-range shooters. The fifth-year senior, who averages 8.8 points per game, shoots a good but unremarkable 36.6% from on treys, but he can catch fire at any time.
Against IUPUI, Felt made back-to-back three-pointers from well beyond the arc to start a 15-0 run in the first half that put the Bison ahead of the Jaguars for the game’s remainder.
Although he is not a senior, junior guard Lawrence Alexander adds one more veteran presence to the team. Alexander, known as L.A. to his teammates and coaches, posts a balanced stat line with 10.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game.
Wright credits him with providing an important presence.
“L.A., I don’t know what L.A., he’s a goofball honestly,” Wright said. “He keeps everybody light and everything.”
North Dakota State has only had one NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.
In 2009, Phillips, as a second-year head coach, led the Bison to 26 wins and a No. 14 seed. The Bison gave No. 3 seed Kansas all it could handle in the Round of 64 before losing, 84-74.
That team was also led by a core group of upperclassmen with four seniors, including Summit League Player of the Year Ben Woodside, in the starting five.
“I see a lot of the same mental aspects,” Phillips said. “They both have a confidence about them. Not a brash way about them, but a quiet confidence about them that they believe in each other. They believe they can win, they believe this story is going to end out right for us. That’s what their mindset is.”
With so many possible leaders on this team, Phillips said his seniors lead more as a collective than individually. Most often their energy comes from Braun, who said he is “probably the toughest on people” and “gets in people’s faces,” but Bjorklund and Wright also carry heavy influence.
“Certainly Taylor is probably the most vocal leader of the group,” Phillips said. “A kid like Marshall Bjorklund could say two words all day long, but they’re going to be the two most important words said. … If all broke heck broke loose and they had to elect a president, I think Taylor would probably be their mouthpiece, though.”
In the most recent game against IUPUI, Wright provided the spark with a season-high 24 points, including a pair of powerful dunks and 3-of-3 shooting from beyond the arc. Wright also had his usual influence on the defensive end with two blocks.
“Tonight, Coach said they came off my energy,” Wright said after the game. “Taylor is probably our main leader. In practice he makes sure everybody is running hard and stuff. Me and Marsh[all] are kind of the quiet guys, but everybody still listens to us.”
Wright has shown the ability to score in large numbers, but he does so inconsistently. He had a 21-point performance against Southern Miss in November and four other games with at least 15 points.
But before the Bison’s Indiana road trip last week, he had been averaging only 7.3 points on 35.4% field-goal shooting.
However, Wright can always be relied on defensively, recording 1.9 rejections and 1.0 steals per contest. With his size at 6’7″ and his quickness, he can contest shots at the rim and wreak havoc in the passing lanes.
“His role on this team isn’t necessarily first and foremost on the offensive end,” Phillips said. “He does a lot of things defensively with switches, with blocked shots, with deflections, just with his long arms outside of his body. But when he does give us something offensively it’s really, really good. And he’s a very capable shooter, he’s a very capable driver of the basketball.”
North Dakota State’s journey for its first Summit League title since 2009 continues Thursday night when they host Nebraska-Omaha, and every game is now the next step toward capturing that NCAA Tournament berth.
The seniors, especially, are craving rings and Madness when March rolls around.
“We’ve had this goal for a while, so it’s pretty much now or never for us,” Braun said. “It’s our last go around.”
NCAA Tournament or not, this is a special herd of Bison, one that Phillips will miss.
“It is silly how much fun we’re having with this group,” Phillips said. “And to be honest with you, I wish we could coach them forever. We’ve just got to soak up the last 12 regular season games and however many they let us play after that.”
All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.