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Kevin Schnepf, Published February 22 2014

Schnepf: Dunking very much in style at the Bison Sports Arena

Fargo - TrayVonn Wright has been doing it since he was a sixth-grader when he was shooting hoops in a Waterloo, Iowa, park.

We’re talking about the slam dunk – the highest-percentage basketball shot. Many of us jumping-impaired athletic wannabes will never even know what it feels like to even touch the rim.

Instead, like many of the 5,614 fans who packed the Bison Sports Arena on Saturday afternoon, we watched Wright and the North Dakota State men’s basketball team soar to the rim in a 74-59 victory over rival South Dakota State.

The dunk is something Bison fans have come to expect from Wright and this Bison team. In an unofficial count provided by NDSU sports information’s Wes Offerman, the Bison now have 67 dunks so far during their 21-6 season.

It’s not Phi Slamma Jamma numbers, compiled by the 1984 University of Houston squad that once slammed home 14 dunks in one game. But it’s safe to say this year’s Bison – which clinched a share of the Summit League championship with Saturday’s win – is the most dunkable team this school has ever had.

“Most definitely,” said Wright, the 6-foot-7 senior jumping jack who led all scorers with 20 points. “Everybody is dunking this year.”

Saturday’s game wasn’t the dunkfest the Bison had when they slammed home seven against Delaware back in December or six against Fort Wayne or eight against IUPUI earlier this month. The Bison had three dunks Saturday, but the two monster jams Wright produced stopped any hints of an SDSU comeback.

With the Bison leading 52-37, Wright grabbed a rebound about 10 feet to left side of the basket. Most humans would’ve settled for a 10-foot putback. Not Wright.

With one giant step, he slammed home a right-handed dunk on the other side of the basket. As expected, the sellout crowd at the BSA erupted.

“That was a Nerf hoop dunk,” Bison head coach Saul Phillips said, referring to childhood days of dunking a Nerf ball through a plastic hoop hanging on the door. “I doubt if I could even dunk it on a Nerf hoop.”

The 5-foot-10 Phillips, who admits he never dunked it as a college player, certainly would have been challenged even more Saturday. He coached barefoot, in an effort to raise funds to help Samaritan’s Feet reach its goal of providing at least 2,014 North Dakota children with shoes this summer.

Phillips couldn’t help but jump up and down on his bare feet after Wright’s rebound dunk.

“As soon as he got down in his little stance after that rebound, our whole bench went … ‘ooh, here it comes,’” Phillips said.

And it came again less than four minutes later when the Bison broke SDSU’s full-court press. Kory Brown, who provided the other Bison dunk Saturday, lobbed a pass from just beyond the 3-point line for Wright to slam home. The Bison had a 63-46 lead with five minutes left, and the crowd was loving it.

“It’s a good way to take out your anger per se,” said Wright, who was an Iowa state champion high jumper clearing 6-feet-10-inches.. “It’s a good way to channel your emotions in a game. It’s a good way to swing momentum and get everybody pumped up.”

Believe it or not, dunking was once banned in college basketball in the mid-1970s. It was the Lew Alcindor rule … a.k.a. Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, whom many thought it was too easy for him to score points.

Dunking was considered showboating in the 1940s – a decade when 7-footer Bob Kurland of Oklahoma A&M supposedly put down the first dunk in college basketball.

But it’s certainly not that way these days. As far as the Bison players are concerned, the slam dunk is a reflection of how hard they are playing. It also partly explains why they are the best shooting team in the country.

“I think it really relates a lot to how we are playing defensively and how much energy we have on that end of the court,” said Bison senior Taylor Braun, who has been the beneficiary of numerous dunks as a result of turnovers produced by the defense. “Plus it fuels us, it gives us energy … you play with a lot more excitement. The crowd is going to get into it, and you are going to feed off of that. It just changes the atmosphere.”

The Bison are certainly hoping for more of that next week – when they close out the regular season with two more home games, the final hoorah before renovation begins on the BSA.

A win over South Dakota Thursday or Denver next Saturday would give the Bison the outright regular-season championship. The Bison then prepare for the Summit tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D. – where it hopes to earn a berth to the NCAA tournament.

That brings us back to the slam dunk – a phrase first coined by L.A. Lakers play-by-play announcer Chick Hearn in 1972. It has come to mean “a sure thing.”

As much as they like to dunk, Bison players are well aware reaching the NCAA tournament is no slam dunk.

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or kschnepf@forumcomm.com. Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com