North Dakota State: More than just a football school

  • Article by: MIKE MCFEELY , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 22, 2014 - 8:40 AM

The basketball team, guided by coach Saul Phillips, is making its own identity.

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North Dakota State fans celebrate after the second-round game of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament against Oklahoma, in Spokane, Wash., Thursday, March 20, 2014.

Photo: Young Kwak, Associated Press - Ap

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– The football questions are beginning to grind on Taylor Braun, which makes perfect sense because he plays basketball for North Dakota State.

NDSU (26-6) beat Oklahoma 80-75 in overtime Thursday, the school’s first victory in the NCAA tournament, and will play San Diego State (30-4) on Saturday for a berth in the Sweet 16. Yet whenever Braun and his teammates face the media in Spokane, somebody draws a comparison to the Bison’s powerful football program that has won three consecutive Football Championship Subdivision national titles and has beaten major conference foes such as the Gophers, Kansas State and Kansas.

“Somehow, I don’t know how this happens, but we win a game in the NCAA basketball tournament and they still keep bringing up something with the football team,” said Braun, a 6-foot-7 senior from Newberg, Ore. “… It definitely gets old with the media trying to match us with the football team. What the football team did was great, but let them have their time and let us have ours.”

There are those who argue winning one game in March Madness outstrips any number of FCS (formerly Division I-AA) titles. It is an ongoing debate in Fargo, which played host to ESPN’s “College GameDay” last fall after the football team beat Kansas State. Bison football fans are passionate, as they showed when about 20,000 invaded Frisco, Texas, in January to watch NDSU beat Towson State 35-7 for its latest title.

NDSU fans in Spokane number in the hundreds, but the national attention garnered by beating the Sooners is growing. Braun had a 30-minute interview with CBS Friday, NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor did two interviews with Sports Illustrated and coach Saul Phillips is doing radio interviews with stations coast-to-coast.

Before Mercer beat Duke, the Bison were the anointed Cinderella of this year’s tournament. It helped when President Obama picked NDSU to beat the Sooners in his bracket.

“It feels good to get some attention that we felt like we deserved for most of the season,” said Marshall Bjorklund, a senior from Sibley East High School. “For a midmajor team to get some attention, you need to win some big games. Once you do that, you get people’s attention. It’s kind of nice.”

The 12th-seeded Bison beat fifth-seeded Oklahoma when point guard Lawrence Alexander nailed a contested three-pointer with 11 seconds left to tie the score 66-66 and freshman Carlin Dupree came in cold off the bench in overtime after Braun fouled out and scored four points, including two free throws that gave NDSU a lead for good. Alexander scored 28 points on 10-for-15 shooting and added eight rebounds.

Bjorklund, who leads the nation in field-goal percentage at 63.4 percent, added 13 points and six rebounds.

“It feels unbelievable. There’s no way around it,” said Phillips, who also led the Bison to the NCAA tournament in 2009, when they lost to Kansas at the Metrodome. “I’m getting a lot of calls and text messages from people I haven’t heard from in a while. And a lot of area codes I don’t know. Anybody have a guide for area codes?”

The Bison face a San Diego State team that escaped with a 73-69 overtime victory over New Mexico State. The Aztecs struggle offensively, but play ferocious pressure defense and rank second in the nation in scoring defense (56.6 points per game).

They also rank eighth in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 43 percent from the field. The Bison lead the nation in field-goal percentage at 51 percent.

“This is not a team doing it with smoke and mirrors. They’re talented. They’re good,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said of the Bison. “They haven’t had as much national TV exposure as a lot of teams, but you watch them one time and you say, ‘They can play.’ Play shirts and skins and they could be on any team in the country.”

The game will go a long way toward the Bison basketball team separating itself from the football team. Phillips said it will also expose NDSU to potential recruits who don’t think of the school for basketball.

“It will help. We have to smash some perceptions about Fargo. We do. A lot of people in this room haven’t been there. Moments like [Thursday] help,” Phillips said. “Fargo’s actually a really cool place. ... It is. Now, it’s cold. Bring a jacket. You can take it off when you get inside.”

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