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Kevin Schnepf, Published March 16 2009

Big day, big draw: Bison land defending champs, nearby site for NCAA tournament

NDSU faces Kansas at 11:30 a.m. Friday at Metrodome

At 5:12 p.m. Sunday, the dream for North Dakota State’s men’s basketball team got even wilder.

That’s when Bison players and more than 1,700 fans assembled in the Bison Sports Arena found out they would be playing the school’s first-ever NCAA tournament game only a three-hour drive away in Minneapolis. And against defending national champion Kansas.

“The script keeps getting better and better,” said Brett Winkelman, a senior forward from Morris, Minn. “I didn’t want to wake up from this dream. It looks like I don’t have to yet.”

“It’s unbelievable,” said Ben Woodside, a senior guard from Albert Lea, Minn. “We’re happy it’s in Minneapolis and we get to play the defending champs. It can’t get any better than that.”

Fans like Leo Blotsky of West Fargo were also hoping the Bison would be playing in Minneapolis – only 208 miles down Interstate 94 from Fargo. When CBS Sports’ nationally televised NCAA Tournament Selection Show – beamed on the scoreboard’s giant screen – announced No. 3-seed Kansas would play No. 14 NDSU, the Bison Sports Arena erupted with cheers.

The celebration was seen nationwide for a few seconds, courtesy of a CBS-TV camera positioned in front of a stage that seated Bison players, coaches and family and the throng of fans behind them.

It didn’t go without notice.

Sportingnews.com rated the Bison “Selection Show” fans the best in the Midwest Region.

“We’ll fill that dome like we did for the football game,” Blotsky said, referring to NDSU’s 27-21 win over the University of Minnesota last fall, when an estimated 30,000 Bison fans filled half the Metrodome.

Billed as the biggest party in Fargo history, according to NDSU head coach Saul Phillips, NDSU’s “Selection Show” get-together had university officials giddy with excitement.

“I would rather play Kansas in the Metrodome than some other team in Boise,” said NDSU President Joseph Chapman, instrumental in spearheading the school’s move to Division I from Division II five years ago. “This has been remarkable. This is just the beginning of great things to come for our program.”

As soon as the announcement was made, NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor called University of Minnesota associate athletics’ director Mark Ryan – who is charge of the first- and second-round games that will be held Friday and Sunday in the Metrodome.

“The first thing I told him is, ‘I don’t think you have enough

tickets,’ ” Taylor said.

According to Garry Bowman of the University of Minnesota sports information office, there were more than 20,000 tickets available before it was announced NDSU would be playing in the Metrodome.

“We’re thrilled to have the Bison coming here,” Bowman said. “They packed the dome when they played football down here and I’m sure they will do the same again. We’re excited about it.”

Fourteen-year-old Bethany Fraase and her 12-year-old brother, Austin, of West Fargo, were excited. They have watched nearly every Bison home game this year. Austin didn’t get his wish for a Bison-Gophers matchup. The Gophers, a team that beat the Bison 90-76 Nov. 29, made the tournament and will play Texas in Greensboro, N.C.

Deland Myers, NDSU’s faculty athletic representative, was excited.

“We were hoping for Minneapolis so our fans can go down and celebrate this,” Myers said. “It’s going to be great.”

It was just last Tuesday in Sioux Falls, S.D., where the Bison claimed a dramatic 66-64 win in the Summit League Tournament championship to become the first team since 1970 to advance to the NCAA tournament during its first year of playoff eligibility.

Since then, the Bison have been written about in USA Today and have appeared on numerous ESPN highlights.

Sunday, about five hours before the “Selection Show,” CBS ran a

10-minute segment on the Bison and their return trip from Sioux Falls.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said NDSU academic athletic advisor Dennis Isrow, who has been at the school since 1963. “Now people across the country are going to know who North Dakota State is and where North Dakota State is. It’s amazing.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com