SPOKANE, Wash. — Lawrence Alexander has started every game since he walked on campus at North Dakota State, but the junior point guard has been the hero only once. The way he sees it, he was due again.
Fittingly, it came on the same play as the last time.
Trailing fifth-seeded Oklahoma 66-63 with 18 seconds remaining, North Dakota State called a timeout and drew up a dribble isolation play for fifth-year senior Taylor Braun, its best player. But as the Bison broke the huddle, Alexander grabbed Braun and shouted in his ear, “I’ll be open on the right wing if you need me.”
With no driving lane to be found, Braun kicked the ball to Alexander, who was waiting on the wing just like he promised. And just like he did two years ago against Oakland, Alexander buried the three. Back then, he won the game on that shot. Now, he sent it to overtime — and sent crowd of 10,962 into a frenzy. Little North Dakota State, a school you probably knew more for its football than its hoops, survived a desperate push from the Sooners Thursday night in Spokane Arena and earned the school's first NCAA win, an 80-75 victory in overtime.
“Anyone can enjoy this,” said NDSU coach Saul Philips, as he threw his arms up in the Bison's locker room and smiled. “It’s the All-American 12-5 upset.”
It’s true that by now, we have all learned our lesson about the 12-5 matchup. But it’s more the way this one happened than the result itself. Just ask Braun, who fouled out with 1:17 to go with NDSU leading 72-71, then sat on the bench muttering, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
“It’s only fitting that for as many games as Taylor’s picked us up and led us to victory, our guys respond by picking him up,” Philips said. “I can believe it happened, I just can’t believe how it happened.”
Besides Braun’s off shooting night (3-for-11 and 11 points) consider this:
-- Braun turned the ball over toward the end of regulation and couldn’t finish at the rim on the next possession, almost undoing the Bison in the span of 10 seconds.
-- NDSU got a huge contribution from little-used freshman guard Carlin Dupree, who took two minutes and, in Phillips' words, “stomped all over them.”
-- The team known for offense (the Bison average a nation-best 50.9 percent from the field) locked down defensively, holding Oklahoma without a field goal for almost nine minutes in the second half. The Sooners grabbed 18 offensive boards and took 21 more shots than NDSU, but hit just 34.7 percent of their looks on the night. Alexander, who averages just under 11 points a game, turned in 28.
Adding to the list of irregularities, country star Toby Keith, a devoted Oklahoma supporter, was in the stands. Braun noticed this when he was on the bench with nothing to do, looking around the arena, taking in the atmosphere. It was about this time that Dupree, who averages eight minutes a game, saw an open lane and drove, scooping in a wild shot with 39 seconds to play that gave NDSU a 76-72 lead.
“Right then,” Philipps said, “things got a little weird.”
Phillips was set to insert Mike Felt when Braun fouled out, but decided Dupree was a better choice at the last second. His logic: The Bison needed to break the press before they did anything else, and Dupree is good at that. Little did he know Dupree would finish the night playing “the loudest two minutes in the history of the NCAA basketball tournament.”
His final stat line: 1-for-1 from the field, 2-for-2 from the line and zero turnovers, all in a whopping 120 seconds. But this doesn’t necessarily mean Dupree has inserted himself the regular rotation: “I think two minutes is perfect for him,” Phillips joked afterward.
This is a roster stocked with overlooked guys, players whose deficiencies scared away other teams. They’re not well known — in the postgame press conference the moderator mistakenly referred to Braun as “Tyler” — and most of them didn’t have many, if any, other Division-I offers coming out of high school. When NDSU first contacted him, Alexander’s reaction was, “Where the hell is North Dakota?”
“Honestly, there were not a lot of people looking at me, or looking at a lot of guys on this team,” said Braun, a Newberg, Ore., native who did not receive even a scholarship offer from Big Sky schools. “I talked to everybody and nobody wanted me. Even a couple Division-II schools said, ‘You know, we’re gonna go with someone else.’ It feels good to get this attention.”
If nothing else, Braun said, this team is resilient, and he’s proof of it. As he spoke, it was hard not to notice the shoe imprint still on his face — Oklahoma’s Cameron Clark stepped on his face accidentally in a dead ball scrum — or the five-inch gash on the back of his right arm. He got scratched on a play, but refused to come out, and NDSU trainers obliged by closing the gap with medical glue. Until he fouled out, Braun had every intention of playing until the buzzer sounded.
“A lot of teams could have crumbled,” Braun said. “This just shows how many fighters we have.”
After the upset, boosters and administrators flooded the Bison’s postgame locker room. Athletic director Gene Taylor said there’s been a major uptick in donations since NDSU’s football team stunned Kansas State 24-21 back in August, but he’s long thought “if our basketball team can get a win in the NCAA tournament, it would really put us on the map, just because this tournament gets so much attention.”
NDSU doesn’t get much interest from McDonald’s All-Americans, Phillips deadpanned. But after Thursday, maybe a few more top recruits will take his phone calls. It sounds unrealistic — but so did a Bison win, given the circumstances of Thursday night.
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