The recognition came very late. Taylor Braun had fouled out. It was overtime. North Dakota State had somehow retaken the lead, anyway. A few more seconds remained in overtime, but it was becoming clear the Bison would upset Oklahoma. The senior guard drank in the scene: Many in the crowd at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena were chanting "Let's go Bison!" His teammates were beginning to celebrate the biggest win in school history. And then Braun looked over to the Oklahoma bench, where the loss was sinking in for the Sooners. Just behind them, he spied someone who looked familiar. He wondered aloud: "Is that that country singer?" It was, in fact, Toby Keith, a devoted Oklahoma fan. And it was in that moment that Braun realized the magnitude of what was unfolding, right before his eyes. "That just shows, you know, this is a big stage," Braun said. "It just amplifies everything." For amplification, there's Saturday's Round of 32 matchup with No. 4 seed San Diego State. The stage gets bigger for the West Region's No. 12 seed, and so does the opportunity. But before the Bison get there, let them revel a little bit in what might be the biggest win in school history. That's debatable, considering the football team has won 24 consecutive games and three consecutive national championships at the FCS level, but the exposure that comes from winning in the NCAA Tournament – especially as a little-known underdog? "There's nothing that matches that," North Dakota State athletic director Gene Taylor said, adding: "I've got to pinch myself to make sure I don't wake up anytime soon. It was as big of a moment if not the biggest that we've ever had." It was also among the biggest in a feeding-frenzy of upsets in the Round of 64. And considering how the Bison won – although it took late dramatics to get into overtime and then to win, they controlled the game for most of the night – it's only fitting that someone asked them during a news conference about Florida Gulf Coast's NCAA run last year. The reason for the question, of course, was that No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast followed up a win over No. 2 seed Georgetown by beating San Diego State in the Round of 32. The Bison don't much mirror "Dunk City" in style; they're more methodical than high-flying. But in beating No. 5 seed Oklahoma, they appeared more than capable of giving anyone a fight. They were also cut, battered and bruised after a very physical game. Braun sported an angry red mark on his temple where he'd been kicked in the head; a three-inch-long cut on his right shoulder was glued closed during the game. "There's nothing about us pretty," North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips said. "Come on, let's be honest. We're the great unwashed. Here we are. That's why it's fun." And they have the seemingly universal attributes of an NCAA Tournament Cinderella, starting with unbridled exuberance. When the game ended Thursday night, Phillips ran crazily across the court, arms raised, and yelled along with the North Dakota State fans. A few minutes later, the locker room was a mosh pit. A day later, even as they said they were focused on San Diego State, the players were still enjoying the spotlight. The coach, too: Phillips said when the Bison practiced at the arena Friday, he "went out and kissed that spot on the floor" where Lawrence Alexander's 3-pointer had tied it with 11.2 seconds left in regulation. "Two big lip marks out there," he said.
North Dakota State eyes encore on NCAA's 'big stage'
USA Today | Mar 22