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Patrick Ridgell / Special to The Forum, Published February 01 2014

Denver edges Bison for men's basketball victory

DENVER – It was one of those nights the North Dakota State men’s basketball team really shouldn’t have had a chance to win. But the opportunity was there, and it slipped away.

Two Marcus Byrd free throws with 4.4 seconds to play sealed a 67-63 win for Denver over NDSU at Magness Arena on Saturday night. But the Pioneers were clinging by their fingertips at game’s end, holding off a Bison rally that was more determined than furious.

“We made some decisions I didn’t recognize,” NDSU coach Saul Phillips said. “Against a quality team like Denver, that’s going to get you.”

Those strange sights included watching his sure-handed team commit 15 turnovers, nine in the night’s first 14 minutes. The Bison missed 10 of 25 free throws and saw the Pioneers shoot above 60 percent for most of the game. They finished at 51 percent, including 9-for-16 on 3s.

Even more unrecognizable today could be Taylor Braun. According to Phillips, the all-conference Bison guard has been battling a bacterial infection that has kept him from eating in recent days, and as a result he has dropped 10 pounds over the past week. At 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds, Braun didn’t really need a diet.

Braun finished with 17 points, but 16 came in the first half, and he looked fatigued late. He missed two free throws and lost the ball on a drive to the basket in the final two minutes. After playing 37 minutes, he was not made available for comment after the game because of the illness.

NDSU (16-6, 5-2 Summit League), which had its five-game winning streak snapped, was playing its third straight on the road and hasn’t been home since it left for South Dakota on Wednesday. And it was facing a crafty team in Denver (11-11, 4-3) that likes to switch defenses and milk the clock.

Led by Lawrence Alexander’s season-high 20 points – 18 after halftime –NDSU cut a 13-point deficit to one when, following a steal, Alexander sank two free throws with 30 seconds to go to make it 64-63.

Denver’s Chris Udofia hit one free throw on the ensuing possession to put the Bison behind by two. Phillips said the Bison wanted to attack the basket when they got the ball back, and they did. But Alexander missed a shot in the lane and then Mike Felt missed a jumper with 5.4 seconds left, forcing Braun to foul Byrd.

“We battled, we scratched, we fought. We gave them everything we had down the stretch there,” Phillips said. “But all of the effort in the world isn’t going to overcome all of the turnovers we had and all of those missed free throws.”

Said Alexander: “Denver switches their defense up every time. We prepared for it coming in, but it’s different preparing for something you never see. … They just kind of kept us off our game.”

NDSU managed its fewest points since losing 79-62 to Ohio State on Dec. 14. Alexander said he and most of his teammates skipped a shoot-around Saturday morning and rested instead.

As for what got into the senior guard after halftime, Alexander said his coach and teammates challenged him to be more aggressive at halftime, when no Bison besides Braun had scored more than two. Alexander hit three 3s and 7 of 8 free throws. Alexander became the fourth current Bison to top the 1,000-point mark for his career.

“He was more decisive with the ball,” Phillips said. “He’s usually a terrific decision maker. I didn’t recognize some of the stuff I saw out of him in the first half. I may have mentioned that to him.”

NORTH DAKOTA STATE (63): L.Alexander 5-12 7-8 20, T.Braun 6-12 2-6 17, Tr.Wright 2-7 1-2 5, Ko.Brown 3-3 3-4 9, Bjorklund 4-6 2-4 10, Kading 0-1 0-0 0, Aaberg 1-1 0-1 2, Felt 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-43 15-25 63.

DENVER (67): Udofia 4-11 7-8 16, Ca.Griffin 0-3 4-4 4, J.Love 2-3 0-0 6, B.Olson 6-8 5-6 19, B.Rucker 5-7 0-0 12, Ma.Byrd 2-4 4-4 10, Engesser 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 19-37 20-22 67.

North Dakota State 25 38 — 63

Denver 29 38 — 67

3-Point Goals: North Dakota State 6-14 (T.Braun 3-4, L.Alexander 3-6, Kading 0-1, Tr.Wright 0-3), Denver 9-16 (Ma.Byrd 2-3, J.Love 2-3, B.Olson 2-3, B.Rucker 2-3, Udofia 1-3, Ca.Griffin 0-1). Fouled out: J.Love. Rebounds: North Dakota State 26 (Tr.Wright 6), Denver 21 (Udofia 6). Assists: North Dakota State 8 (T.Braun 4), Denver 12 (Ca.Griffin 5). Total Fouls: North Dakota State 19 (Bjorklund 4), Denver 21 (J.Love 5). A—4,021.