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Mike McFeely, Published March 10 2009

McFeely: Nelson sparks team on both ends of floor

Sioux Falls, S.D.

Saul Phillips was a bouncing rubber ball in the postgame press conference following North Dakota State’s 79-67 slugfest victory over Southern Utah in the Summit League semifinals. Boing! Off this wall. Boing! Off that wall. Boing! Off the ceiling.

Little fired up, coach?

“If you think I’m sleeping tonight, you’re crazy,” the Bison basketball coach spewed. “I’m going to look like a guy on a Red Bull bender by tomorrow.”

These are highly caffeinated times, indeed, for the Bison. A victory in tonight’s championship game at Sioux Falls Arena and the little ol’ state of North Dakota will have a team jetting to Jim Nantz Territory, the NCAA Tournament.

“This is our wildest fantasy,” Phillips said, his eyes rolling independently of each other and foam dripping from the side of his mouth.

OK, we made up that last part. You get the idea. The coach had enough energy to wean this country off foreign oil once and for all.

President Obama might also want to take a look at NDSU senior Mike Nelson, who chose an opportune time to have one of his biggest games in a career filled with them.

Nelson scored a team-high 22 points and snared seven rebounds while adding three assists, two steals and a block. He also committed just a single turnover in 32 minutes.

And to think, Nelson could’ve done none of those things and still had a great game.

That’s because his defense on Southern Utah leading scorer Davis Baker overshadowed all the offensive heroics.

Baker strutted into the contest as one of the deadliest shooters in the Summit League (17.7 points per game) and shuffled away with more exasperation (immeasurable) than points (8). Nelson stuck to Baker like germs to a kindergarten class, chasing him around like Tim Pawlenty chases national TV cameras.

“I want to know what else Mike Nelson can do in a basketball game, other than hopping up and selling popcorn,” Phillips said. “He took a player in Davis Baker who can carry his team to a conference championship and shut him down.”

Snapshot that told the whole truth and nothing but the truth:

With the Thunderbirds’ heart very much still beating with 4 minutes remaining, Baker tried to drive Nelson to the basket. Bad idea. Nelson kept his position, got help from his teammates and Baker made a turnover. Frustrated that he didn’t get a foul call, Baker pouted and didn’t hustle back to play defense. Nelson sprinted the length of the floor and nailed a wide-open 3-pointer as Baker, who was supposed to guard Nelson, barely jogged across half court.

That turned a 10-point Bison lead into a 68-55 advantage. Moments later, Nelson cleanly snuffed a Baker jump shot.

“I was making him uncomfortable and he was firing up some tough shots,” Nelson said. “I could tell by his body language he was frustrated.”

Bison coaches, dating back to the Tim Miles days, call Nelson their Energizer Bunny. Keeps going. Never stops. Monday, he was positively nuclear.

“People were asking me, ‘What kind of adjustment are you going to make on Baker?’ This is my adjustment, right here,” Phillips said, putting his hand on Nelson’s shoulder.

One more Bison victory would give Fargo-Moorhead and North Dakota a jolt of juice unlike any they’ve seen before. That’d only be fitting. You need a lot of energy for the Big Dance.

Forum columnist Mike McFeely can be heard from 1-2 p.m. Monday through Friday on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5580 or mmcfeely@forumcomm.com. McFeely’s blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/mcfeely