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Kevin Schnepf, Published March 09 2013

Schnepf: Path gets friendlier for No. 3 seed Bison

Fargo - Its leading scorer is back and appears as healthy as ever. One of its potential opponents may be without its best player. And many, including the oddsmakers in Las Vegas, are picking the North Dakota State men’s basketball team to win the Summit League tournament.

“It seems like we’ve gotten every break this past week … the skies have parted a little bit,” said Bison coach Saul Phillips. “All of a sudden, we’re going to the tournament feeling pretty good about ourselves.”

But Phillips is the first one to realize his team is a long ways from celebrating a berth to the NCAA tournament. His team, the No. 3 seed for this tournament, first has to play No. 6 seed Missouri-Kansas City in its opening-round game tonight in Sioux Falls.

That’s why Phillips stopped a practice last week to remind his team about the 2009 Summit tournament.

No, he didn’t mention that his Bison won the tournament to reach their first “Big Dance” in school history.

Phillips reminded this year’s players of the 2009 first-round game, one in which his top-seeded team nearly got beat by eighth-seeded Centenary.

“I told our guys, ‘Your only focus is to win and get to that next game,’ ” said Phillips, who admitted it’s a little scary facing Kansas City, even though his team beat them twice this season by an average margin of 28 points.

It was certainly a little scary back in 2009, when after building a 21-point lead, the Bison saw Centenary rally to take a 68-67 lead with six minutes left of the opening-round game. Centenary, no longer in the league, was threatening to become the first No. 8 seed to knock off a top seed in the 24-year history of the Summit tournament.

“Coach told us none of these games were going to be easy,” standout Brett Winkelman said after the game, which ended with the Bison making 14 of 16 free throws in the final three minutes to hang on for an 83-77 win.

The rest, they say, is history. The dream team of Winkelman, Ben Woodside, Mike Nelson, Lucas Moormann and Michael Tveidt went on to win the Summit League tournament before giving Kansas a scare in the NCAA tournament.

NDSU’s dream of another NCAA bid isn’t as far-fetched as the last three seasons, when the Bison lost first-round games. If you’re heading down to Sioux Falls for NDSU’s 8:30 p.m. game, you may want to pack extra clothes.

Barring a major letdown against Kansas City, the Bison will likely play a Monday semifinal game against Western Illinois – a team they have lost to twice this season. But in the 50-42 and 49-36 setbacks, the Bison were without leading scorer Taylor Braun.

The 6-foot-7 junior is back after sitting out 10 games with a cracked bone in his foot. Last weekend at Nebraska-Omaha, Braun became the 28th player in Bison history to surpass 1,000-career points after pouring in 22 points.

“There is reason to be excited,” said Phillips, whose 22-8 team has a 17-3 record with Braun in the lineup.

Meanwhile at Western Illinois, 6-foot-8, 250-pound senior Terell Parks has been sidelined with a chipped bone in his foot. By all accounts, it’s highly unlikely Parks will be playing in Sioux Falls. That’s 13 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocked shots per game that Western Illinois will be without.

“After what we went through with Taylor, my heart goes out to them,” Phillips said. “That kid re-energized their program.”

And if the Bison get past Western Illinois, the only thing standing between them and the “Dance” will most likely be South Dakota State. The Bison beat them at home with Braun and lost to them in Brookings without Braun.

“This group has felt like underdogs the whole season,” Phillips said. “We don’t have an air of, ‘We deserve this, this is ours.’ They just realize they have a very good opportunity here.”

And it starts by surviving that first game tonight.

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

or kschnepf@forumcomm.com