DAYTON, OHIO – They checked out of their team hotel and brought their luggage to the arena, wanting to save time in case they had a late-night flight to catch.
That was their goal. To be on that 11 p.m. flight to South Carolina.
The alternative was a trip back to the hotel, to check in again and suffer through a long night of restless sleep after seeing the season come to an end.
The North Dakota State Bison earned a first-class ticket to the real March Madness.
“It’s a very surreal feeling,” said point guard Vinnie Shahid, a former Hopkins standout.
Shahid’s free throws with 8 seconds left sealed a 78-74 victory over North Carolina Central here Wednesday in the First Four, sending NDSU into the full NCAA tournament bracket to face top-seeded Duke on Friday in Columbia, S.C.
The Bison finished the regular season 15-15. They had to win their conference tournament to make the NCAA tournament and then survive a second-half rally by N.C. Central to earn a chance to play Duke and the Zion Williamson show.
“This is a dream come true,” said forward Rocky Kreuser, a Totino-Grace graduate. “You always see Duke and North Carolina and all the blue bloods in the tournament. It’s a great opportunity to go out there and play against them.”
This will be the second No. 1-ranked team the Bison have faced this season. They lost to then-No. 1 Gonzaga by 42 points in November.
This is different. A prime-time game against Duke in the NCAA tournament as a No. 16 seed. The 6-10 Kreuser likely will draw the assignment of guarding Zion.
“Zion is on ESPN every night he plays,” Kreuser said. “He gets a ton of praise and he obviously deserves it. We have to go in with the mind-set to fight back with what he gives us.”
This week has given the Bison a whirlwind of excitement. They learned on Selection Sunday that they were put into the First Four, a quirky play-in prelude to the first round.
The team practiced Monday in Fargo and then flew to Dayton that afternoon. They had a public practice Tuesday, played in the early time slot Wednesday and then hopped on a plane chartered by the NCAA for a late flight to South Carolina after the game.
“It’s a blur,” Kreuser said. “It’s coming fast and we’re trying to live in the moment and enjoying each moment as it comes.”
They endured some anxious moments before being able to enjoy the outcome. The Bison led by 13 points in the second half but saw their lead disappear and turn into a five-point deficit late.
They didn’t panic. They kept attacking and making plays with their season on the line. Tyson Ward’s slick spin move along the baseline resulted in a layup for a 73-70 lead with one minute left. And then Shahid made two clutch free throws to ice it.
“That is why you go to the gym every day and shoot those free throws,” he said. “Take a deep breath and knock the shot down.”
Shahid was the team’s leading scorer in his first season after transferring from Western Nebraska Community College. His teammates voted him captain six weeks after he joined the program, before he had even played a game in a Bison uniform.
That shows the respect he earned behind the scenes, as well as being a talented distributor and floor leader at point guard.
“He has an infectious personality in the locker room,” coach David Richman said. “He’s why you coach. He’s been an absolute pleasure and a breath of fresh air for me. He’s what’s right about the game.”
The entire team plays with a togetherness that is a treat to watch. The Bison are deep and can shoot and are difficult to defend when they spread the floor and attack on penetration. And they’re tough-minded.
The season tested them in different ways. They played four nonconference games against teams that won their conference titles. The Gonzaga game came after a nightmare travel day.
The Bison played at East Tennessee State two days earlier. Bad weather in Chicago forced them to stay overnight in Tennessee and fly the day of the game.
The change in itinerary required the team’s traveling party to split into two groups. Coaches and players caught a flight with a connection in Salt Lake City. The rest of the traveling party took a different route through Minneapolis. They arrived in Spokane four hours before tipoff.
Their travel plans were much different Wednesday night. They had a charter waiting for them at the airport, a sweet reward for victory.