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Kevin Schnepf, Published March 10 2014

Schnepf: Bison squashed any hope of an upset by Denver quickly

Sioux Falls, S.D.

On a day when upsets were the norm Monday afternoon, TrayVonn Wright made a statement to pretty much end any more surprises.

Twenty seconds into the Summit League men’s basketball semifinal game between top-seeded North Dakota State and No. 4 seed Denver, Wright soared in the air and slam dunked a missed Bison shot.

Ten minutes later, the Bison had a 20-6 lead. At halftime, they led 42-15. When the game ended, they had an 83-48 win – the most lopsided semifinal win in the league’s 30 tournaments.

Unlike the top-seeded South Dakota State women and second-seeded IUPUI – both who suffered shocking semifinal losses Monday afternoon – the Bison were ready to play. There were no signs of nerves from this veteran group.

“Just having the guys that have played in this situation before, I think that showed a little bit tonight,” said Bison senior center Marshall Bjorklund, one of eight who played in last year’s tournament championship game. “We didn’t have too many nerves. Just having that experience in our back pocket is pretty nice.”

Now, there are some who speculated that the SDSU women – who had won the previous five tournaments – were victims of the first-round bye they received. Rusty, nervous with a few younger players a bit shell-shocked.

The NDSU men, because of its regular-season championship, also had a first-round bye. It was driving Bison head coach Saul Phillips crazy – not knowing how his team would respond to a nine-day layoff.

“That’s what worrying does for you,” Phillips said, who jokingly said his team performed yoga, took long walks in the park and listened to soothing music to prepare for Monday night’s game.

It wasn’t needed.

The Bison, in addition to shutting down Denver’s hot-shooting offense, produced one of its most efficient offensive performances during Phillips’ seven seasons as head coach.

It was reminiscent of the high-scoring 2009 Bison team that won this tournament and nearly knocked off Kansas in the NCAA tournament. It was that team that had a 21-point lead in an opening-round game against Centenary before hanging on for 83-77 win.

Centenary was not mentioned at halftime.

“We just told ourselves to not let up at all,” said Bison senior guard Taylor Braun.

“I believe the exact words out of your mouth were ‘Let’s beat them by 50,’” Phillips said, looking at Braun during the postgame news conference.

In fact, the Bison were even more efficient in the second half – scoring on 17 of their 21 possessions before the subs started playing with less than five minutes remaining.

Total that up with the first-half numbers and you get 35 of 44.

“We don’t get to that level in our practices,” Phillips said.

That’s like a .400 batting average in baseball. That’s like a quarterback rating of 130 in football. That’s like hitting 16 of 18 greens in a round of golf.

“That’s like hitting all of them,” said ESPN golf analyst Andy North, who watched Monday night’s game to support his friend Phillips.

The Bison couldn’t have picked a better time for such efficiency.

After all, history shows the No. 1 seed has failed to reach the championship game 11 times during the previous 29 league tournaments. Seven times, the No. 1 team lost in the semifinals.

But not Monday, on a day when upsets seemed to be the norm.

Had Denver coach Joe Scott seen a more efficient team this season?

“Probably mine on occasion,” Scott said. “They execute really, really well. They know each other well. There is a big comfort level with them having played so many games together … and they’ve done that and won a lot of games together.”

Forty-eight wins to be exact with this group in the last two seasons. Now the Bison, knowing full well it will be hard to duplicate what they did Monday night, hope to make it number 49 after tonight’s championship game.

“This season has been like a story book and it feels like the only way it ends right is with us cutting down the nets tomorrow … that’s how it feels to us,” Phillips said. “Now, that’s not brash, that’s not bragging, that’s how it feels to us. Now go back it up with your play.”