DAYTON, Ohio — Three-point shooting, something North Dakota State’s men’s basketball team has been very good at this season, has a way of opening up other ways to score.
Tyson Ward was proof of that when he scored eight of his 23 points down the stretch to lift the Bison to a 78-74 victory against North Carolina Central in Wednesday night’s nationally televised NCAA Division I tournament First-Four game before 11,827 fans at the Dayton University Arena.
The Bison, unexpected winners of last week’s Summit League tournament to earn their fourth trip to the Big Dance, now take a 19-15 record to Columbia, S.C., where it will play top-ranked and top-seed Duke on Friday night.
“You always want to play the best,” Ward said. “So let’s chalk it up and see what happens.”
What happened Wednesday night was something the Bison have been relying for about the last month. They post up the 6-foot-6 Ward while NDSU’s deadly shooters watch him score or wait for a dish out for an open 3-pointer.
With the Bison trailing 68-65 with just over four minutes remaining, Ward got the ball in the low post. He noticed the defender guarding Sam Griesel sagged off to help. Ward threw it out to Griesel, who sank a 3-pointer from the top of the key to tie the score 68-68.
“Tyson gave me a perfect pass and I just stroked it,” said Griesel, a true freshman from Lincoln, Neb.
Nursing a 71-70 lead, Ward got the ball on the low post again. This time he spun to the baseline and scored inside to make 73-70 with just over a minute remaining.
“I don’t really think when I play,” said Ward, a junior from Tampa, Fla. “I just felt him (the defender) and felt like doing the move.”
Three-point shooting certainly gave Ward room to maneuver. Much like the 50 percent 3-point shooting they had in the Summit League tournament, the Bison made 9 of 20 against North Carolina Central. Six different Bison players drained 3-pointers, a big reason they set a school record for 3-pointers made this season.
“When you have the post like that, and we have the shooters that we have around him, it’s been a pretty effective recipe for us down the stretch,” said Bison head coach David Richman.
North Carolina Central, which had trailed by as many as 13 points early in the second, cut the lead to 76-74 with 9.6 seconds remaining after Randy Miller Jr. sank two free throws. But with 8.5 seconds remaining, Bison point guard Vinnie Shahid sank two free throws to make it 78-74 and a two-possession game.
In the last 7 minutes, 18 seconds of the game, the Bison made 13 of 16 free throws. They rank ninth nationally, making 77 percent of their free throws this season.
“Again, when it’s this time of year, it’s going to come down to a possession here and a possession there,” Richman said. “And those free throws … every one of them is crucial.”
Also crucial is the way the Bison took care of the basketball against North Carolina Central’s pressure defense. Ranked 20th nationally in averaging only 10.6 turnovers a game, the Bison committed only six turnovers Wednesday night.
As a result, North Carolina Central suffered its third straight loss in a First-Four game in Dayton. It was looking good for North Carolina Central with 5:20 remaining when Larry McKnight Jr. drained a 3-pointer to give the Eagles a 66-61 lead.
“I thought we had the game, to be honest,” said McKnight, who along with fellow senior Raasean Davis each scored 20 points. “I felt like we had them right where we needed to be, but it just came up short at the end.”
Here’s what happened after North Carolina Central took a 66-61 lead.
Bison guard Cameron Hunter made two free throws to make it 66-63. Ward made two free throws to cut the deficit to 66-65 with 4:23 remaining.
After Griesel made his 3-pointer to tie it 68-68, Griesel and Ward teamed up for another big play. Griesel grabbed an offensive rebound but missed the putback. Ward then grabbed the offensive rebound that led to two more free throws to tie it 70-70 with 2:32 remaining.
It was rebounding, a 38-29 edge that helped North Carolina Central stay close to the Bison.
“They’re a really physical and athletic team,” Griesel said. “And at times we struggled with getting some defensive rebounds. But down the stretch, we came up with some big ones. And that was key for us to get this win.”
The big key was another post move by Ward that gave the Bison a 75-70 lead with 25 seconds remaining. About two hours after the game ended, the Bison were on a charter plane for Columbia, S.C., where they will prepare for Friday night’s game against Duke.
Only once in NCAA tournament history has a No. 16 seed knocked off a No. 1 seed. That happened last year when Maryland-Baltimore upset Virginia.
“We really don’t think about that too much,” said Shahid, who was one of eight Bison players to score. “16 versus 1, 2 versus 3 … it doesn’t really matter to us. We’re just going out there to compete.”
NCC (18-16): Douglas 4-10 4-4 14, Davis 6-9 8-9 20, McKnight Jr. 7-12 2-2 20, Perkins 1-9 0-0 2, Miller Jr. 6-14 3-4 18, Blount 0-1 0-0 0, Walters 0-1 0-0 0, Guerra 0-0 0-0 0, Gardner Jr. 0-1 0-0 0, Fennell 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-57 17-21 74.
NDSU (19-15): Griesel 4-9 1-2 10, Kreuser 1-3 1-2 4, Shahid 4-10 5-5 14, Samuelson 3-6 1-2 10, Ward 7-13 7-8 23, Eady 3-3 0-0 7, Geu 1-2 1-2 3, Quayle 0-0 0-0 0, Hunter 2-5 3-3 7, Horn 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-52 19-24 78.
Half: NDSU 40, NCC 34. Total fouls: NCC 20, NDSU 14. 3-point goals: NCC 9-21 (Douglas 2-3, McKnight Jr. 4-6, Miller Jr. 3-8), NDSU 9-20 (Griesel 1-1, Kreuser 1-2, Shahid 1-3, Samuelson 3-6, Ward 2-3, Eady 1-1). Rebounds: NCC 38 (Davis 15, Douglas 8), NDSU 29 (Griesel 6, Ward 6). Assists: NCC 17 (Perkins 10), NDSU 12 (Shahid 3, Ward 3). Turnovers: NCC 9, NDSU 6.