Kevin Schnepf, Published March 22 2014
Schnepf: There was lots to love despite loss
This is all a way, of course, to forget what happened Saturday in Spokane Arena.
But it wasn’t easy to forget the 63-44 loss to San Diego State in the third round of the NCAA tournament. Nor was it easy to dwell on the countless memories this team will have from this past week and past season.
When asked about memories 15 minutes after the game the Bison thought they could win, head coach Saul Phillips was at a loss for words – for a change.
Holding back the tears, he said with his voice quivering:
“It’s only the greatest professional week of my life,” said Phillips, who says goodbye to six seniors who made history. “I got to watch a group of guys who deserved it, wanted it so bad, and made it a priority in their life and did everything I asked them to do.
“This season? Wow. Let’s just say this: It’s why I do what I do. And I lose six guys out that door. Charles Barkley can make fun of me now, it’s fine. Hey, I love these guys. Absolutely love them. Love them.”
There were a lot of things to love.
Start with a school-record-tying 26 wins – matching the totals in 1925 and 2009. Continue with a Summit League regular-season championship and follow that up with the always difficult task of winning the league tournament.
Then remember what happened Thursday – when the Bison not only had the 10,000 fans in Spokane Arena cheering for them, but the entire nation. When their 80-75 upset win over Oklahoma was announced at another NCAA regional in Milwaukee, the crowd roared its approval over a No. 12 seed knocking off a No. 5 seed.
All the slam dunks, all the shots that fell before Saturday, all the blocks and rebounds and all the signature victories may not help the Bison forget about San Diego State’s suffocating defense or the one-man offensive show called Xavier Thames, but they produced a number of shining moments that could very well hit the TV airwaves after the national championship game in a couple of weeks.
Maybe it will be Lawrence Alexander’s 3-point shot that sent Thursday’s game into overtime. Maybe it will be true freshman Carlin Dupree sinking a basket and two free throws in overtime. Maybe it will be close-ups of Marshall Bjorklund’s shiner or the scratch on Taylor Braun’s back. Maybe it will be Phillips pumping his fists in the air in front of the 600 Bison fans that made the journey to Spokane.
In time, all this will be remembered and cherished by the players who weren’t just happy to reach the Big Dance, but were able to perform a victory jig for an entire nation to see.
“I’m just thankful for the opportunity,” said Braun, one of the six seniors who wore the Bison uniform one last time. “We made history for our school; that’s something I’ll always remember, and I can say I had a part in that.”
Braun, who admitted he may not have played his best in his last two games, had a huge part in NDSU’s success.
The Summit League player of the year from Newburg, Ore., finishes his career with 1,651 points – seventh best all-time. He finished with 671 rebounds (9th), 125 three-pointers (9th), 454 free throws (4th), 338 assists (10th), 153 steals (8th) and 106 games in which he started (5th).
Then there was Bjorklund, the bruising post player who will now get a chance to heal his ailing shoulders. The farm boy from Arlington, Minn., finished with 1,440 points (12th), 682 rebounds (7th), a 63 percent field-goal percentage (2nd only to Lance Berwald) and 126 games started – the most ever by a Bison.
TrayVonn Wright, who unfortunately did not get to display his talents these past two games because of foul trouble, finished his career with 1,131 points (22nd). The 6-foot-7, 185-pound jumping jack from Waterloo, Iowa, also finished with 622 rebounds (14th), 102 3-pointers and 176 blocked shots (2nd). And if a statistic were kept, he would be the hands-down leader in number of dunks.
Jordan Aaberg, the 6-foot-9 backup post player from Rothsay, Minn., finished his career with 114 games played (14th) and 90 blocks (4th). Mike Felt, the sharpshooter from Redwood Falls, Minn., finished his career with 244 3-pointers (3rd), 40 percent accuracy from 3-point range (9th) and an 85 percent free-throw shooting touch (2nd).
Fred Newell, the 5-8 guard who rarely played, provided plenty of defensive pressure in practice. In fact, Phillips mentioned his name when asked about San Diego State’s lengthy arms that limited his team to 32 percent shooting – 18 points below its nation-leading average.
“How do you simulate that if you’re us?” Phillips said in preparing for one of the nation’s best defensive teams. “Have Fred Newell tape 8-foot 2-by-4s to his arms?”
Game preparation was also a challenge for San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher. That’s why he made a call to former NDSU coach and current Nebraska coach Tim Miles.
“Tim told me, ‘Steve, I love you like a big brother, but I can’t tell you one thing about North Dakota State,’” Fisher said. “I told Tim, ‘I would have been disappointed if you had.’ ”
Fisher, whose team made up for last year’s third-round loss to Cinderella Florida Gulf Coast, had plenty of praise for the Bison.
“When you do what they have done, and you get to the tournament and you win in the tournament, that gets everybody’s attention,” Fisher said. “Recruiting is the name of the game. And that will open doors, maybe that weren’t there for them before, to get in the door of other players who will now help their program grow and continue to get where they want to go.
“When you’re a senior – and they’ve got a lot of good ones – it hurts when you know you can’t be there anymore. But, the nice thing about that, too, they will come back and tell the new group and the guys returning, you can do what we did. And then do it and do it better. So, it hurts; it does. If it doesn’t hurt, then you’re not going to be here.
“They have a really good program and that’s what we talk about, having a good program. They’ve got a good program.”
Perhaps words that will help the Bison forget about Saturday and remember all those shining moments.
Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549
Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com