SIOUX FALLS, S.D.-It was all looking so pretty. Too pretty as it turned out. North Dakota State was leading Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne by 23 points with 15 minutes left in the game and the Bison were in the driver's seat-with Fort Wayne nowhere near the vehicle.
Then it suddenly turned into a race to the finish line.
NDSU hit 5 of 6 free throws in the last 28 seconds and held on to beat the Mastodons 86-82 in the first round of the Summit League men's basketball tournament Sunday night at the Denny Sanford Premier Center. The Bison will play South Dakota State at 6 p.m. Monday in the semifinals.
It was a collective "whew" just to get there.
"We were just trying to stop the bleeding," said Bison guard Paul Miller.
They stopped it when they were pressed in a haphazard final minute.
Leading 81-80, NDSU's Miller missed the front end of a bonus free throw. Miller, however, stole the ball on the other end, but his driving layup was blocked by Fort Wayne's John Konchar with 37 seconds left.
No matter. Fort Wayne turned it over five seconds later. NDSU freshman Cameron Hunter hit two free throws at :28 and it was 83-80.
On the other end, Miller blocked Bryson Scott's shot in the lane, a move where Scott has gotten to the free throw line so many times this season. Miller, instead, held his own.
"He's a top three in the country in free throws (attempted) this season," said Fort Wayne head coach Jon Coffman. "He's one of the hardest guys in college basketball to referee. He's arguably, if not statistically, one of the best two or three drivers in the country and he gets to the free throw line."
Not that time. Hunter made 1 of 2 free throws after getting fouled off the inbounds pass. Konchar responded with a driving layup. It was 84-82 with 11 seconds remaining.
Miller followed with his two biggest free throws of the season two seconds later to effectively seal it.
"We were able to make a few more winning plays down the stretch," said NDSU head coach Dave Richman.
For the longest time, it looked like the Bison wouldn't need any winning plays down the stretch. The Bison turned in a gem of a first half shooting 56 percent in taking a 49-31 lead at the break. It was everybody on the floor, with a key stretch coming in the last seven minutes when NDSU outscored the Mastodons 15-3.
A couple backups were prominent. Back-to-back 3-pointers by reserve guard Jared Samuelson started it. Forward Deng Geu took it from there scoring four straight, the last three a three-point play off a dunk and it was 45-27.
"A lot of energy, you could feel it in the locker room before the game," Geu said. "We were all hyped up and ready to go."
Defensively, NDSU was just as effective holding the Mastodons to 36 percent shooting and outrebounding them 23-13. Leading Fort Wayne scorers Konchar and Scott got their production, but everybody else was 2 of 13.
"We've seen us play like this, just not consistently," Richman said. "We've done it in pieces."
NDSU maintained its stronghold still leading by 20 with 12 minutes remaining. That's when Fort Wayne got its ball rolling for the first time all game, with Konchar and Scott leading the way. Those two combined for 13 points and the Mastodons pulled within 69-60.
Scott followed with a 3-pointer and an arena that was mostly Bison cheers turned to a dull buzz.
"We never lost hope in each other," Konchar said.
A couple of Miller 3-pointers kept NDSU from a total meltdown. Still, Fort Wayne kept the pressure. Scott's reverse layup with 1:27 left pulled the Mastodons within 81-80. As smooth as NDSU was in the first half, the Bison were holding on for dear life at that point.
Asked if anybody was scoreboard watching, Miller pointed to himself.
"I'm not going to lie, I was a little bit," he said.
Ultimately, however, his 29 points led the way. Geu finished with 14 and Tyson Ward 13. Konchar and Scott had 29 points each for Fort Wayne.
NDSU (15-16): Jacobson 4-5 2-2 12, Eliason 2-3 2-2 6, P. Miller 9-18 6-7 29, Hunter 0-5 3-4 3, Ward 4-7 4-6 13, Samuelson 3-7 0-0 9, Quayle 0-2 0-0 0, Geu 6-7 2-3 14, Kreuser 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 28-54 19-24 86.
FORT WAYNE (18-14): Taylor 1-6 1-4 3, Scott 10-21 6-7 29, Levitch 2-2 2-2 8, Harrell 1-6 0-0 2, Konchar 12-18 4-4 29, Carl 3-5 1-2 9, King 0-1 2-4 2, Weir 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 29-60 16-23 82.
Half: NDSU 49, FW 31. 3-point goals: NDSU 11-21 (Jacobson 2-3, Miller 5-8, Hunter 0-2, Ward 1-1, Samuelson 3-7); FW 8-19 (Scott 3-4, Harrell 0-3, Konchar 1-6, Carl 2-3, King 0-1, Levitch 2-2). Total fouls: NDSU 20, FW 19. Rebounds: NDSU 35 (Miller 8); FW 31 (Konchar 12). Assists: NDSU 15 (Ward 5); FW 11 (Konchar 6). Turnovers: NDSU 11 (Hunter, Ward 3); FW 7 (Scott 3).
Who: North Dakota State vs. South Dakota State
When: 6 p.m., Monday
Where: Denny Sanford Premier Center, Sioux Falls, S.D.
Radio: 107.9-FM, 1660-AM, 92.7-FM