It seems just like yesterday when Ben Woodside was making life miserable for Kansas men’s basketball coach Bill Self. But it was 11 years ago about this time of year. That’s when Woodside and his North Dakota State teammates — playing in the school’s very first NCAA Division I tournament — were giving Self and his defending national championship team a scare.
In front of 15,794 fans in the old Metrodome in Minneapolis (it was estimated 10,000 of those were NDSU fans), Woodside was carving up the Kansas defense with lightning-quick drives to the basket, pull-up jumpers, floaters from the lane and 3-pointers.
Sitting at the end of the scorers bench within an arm’s reach of the Kansas bench, I saw firsthand how frustrated Self was.
As his players sat down for a timeout, Self turned to his assistants and pleaded: “How in the f___ can we stop this guy?”
Well, Kansas didn’t stop Woodside. He scored 37 points, which would end up being the highest individual scoring performance of the NCAA Tournament that year. But Kansas would hang on and win that game 84-74, ending NDSU’s first year of NCAA Division I tournament eligibility with a 26-7 record.
Little did we know 11 years ago that it was a game that would be the springboard of things to come for NDSU basketball.
In its 12 years of Division I hoops, NDSU has produced six 20-win seasons, only three losing seasons and five NCAA Tournament berths. That’s a lot of Big Dance memories.
Unfortunately for this year’s Bison team, there would be no memories of giving a major power a scare like the 2009 team did against Kansas or the 2015 team did against Gonzaga. There would be no memories of upsetting a major power like the 2014 team did against Oklahoma.
Instead, the 2019-20 season came to a sudden halt for the Bison and all of college basketball when the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s team was left with memories of an impressive 25-8 season — nearly equal to the 26-7 seasons the 2009 and 2014 teams produced.
They can only wonder if they could have pulled off an opening-round upset. One prognosticator had the No. 15-seeded Bison knocking off No. 2-seeded Creighton in the first round. This team, arguably one of the best during NDSU’s Division I era, can only hang their hats on its 89-53 Summit League Tournament championship win over UND — the largest margin of victory in a league title game — its second straight tournament title and the school’s fourth in the last seven years.
So while there will be no NCAA memories for this year’s team, here are memories the four other Bison ‘Big Dance’ teams created:
The Fab Four of Woodside, Brett Winkelman, Mike Nelson and Lucas Moorman started this run when Woodside sank a last-second, 15-foot game-winning shot to win the Summit League tournament championship — earning the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth.
This was a group that was redshirted during their first year at NDSU. As second-year freshmen, they won at No. 15 Wisconsin. As sophomores, they won at No. 8 Marquette.
So it came as no surprise, in their final year, that this group gave Kansas all it could handle. Winkelman pulled down 12 rebounds against Kansas and would end up the school’s all-time rebounding leader. And then there was Woodside, who would end up being NDSU’s all-time leading scorer.
“Coach said he was good … I didn’t know he was that good,” said Kansas All-American point guard Sharron Collins, who scored 32 points against NDSU.
“We haven’t played anybody harder to guard than him,” said Self, who tried to stop Woodside with five different players. “He is a terrific talent.”
But Kansas was very talented. In addition to Collins’ 32 points, big man Cole Aldrich had 23 points — 16 coming off of eight slam dunks. The Fab Four trailed only 62-59 with less than eight minutes remaining, but could get no closer to pulling off an upset like they did at Wisconsin and Marquette.
“Wisconsin and Marquette missed a lot of shots,” said then Bison head coach Saul Phillips. “Kansas did not.”
It wasn’t until 2014 when the Bison returned to the "Big Dance.” And what a return it was when the No. 12 seed Bison knocked off No. 5 seed Oklahoma 80-75 in overtime in Spokane, Wash.
A few so-called experts predicted a Bison win — including President Barack Obama.
This group was arguably as good and talented as the 2009 Bison. Taylor Braun, Trayvon Wright and Lawrence Alexander all went on to play professionally overseas. Marshall Bjorklund developed into one of the best post players in Bison history.
Two days later in Spokane, the Bison would lose to San Diego State 63-44. But the few Bison fans who made the trip to Spokane will never forget Phillips racing across the basketball floor, pumping his fists in the air after the win over Oklahoma — the first time a Summit League team pulled off an NCAA Tournament win since 1998, when Valparaiso's Bryce Drew sank a last-second 3-pointer to knock off Mississippi.
“The entire country will now see North Dakota as a basketball state because of this win,” said NDSU President Dean Bresciani, who was amongst the throng of Bison fans celebrating in Spokane.
Unexpectedly, the Bison returned to the "Big Dance" the following year with Alexander and Kory Brown as the only returning starters, and assistant Dave Richman in his first year as head coach. After practicing all season in an off-campus warehouse because of the Bison Sports Arena renovation, NDSU would travel to Seattle to play No. 2 seed Gonzaga — a team with a front line of three players standing 6-feet-10 or taller.
That didn’t stop Bison 6-foot-6 post Dexter Werner from having a career game with 22 points. Werner was not intimidated, sinking about every shot imaginable to help the Bison pull within six points midway through the second half, before falling 86-76.
Werner’s performance, described as the "Dexter Werner Experience" by one Seattle newspaper, was trending on social media that night.
“Yo,” read one twitter post. “If you’re ever in the Pittsburgh area let me know, I’m gonna buy you some drinks.”
Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer chuckled when asked about Werner’s performance: “I would pick him up any day on my men’s league team.”
Much like the 2015 team, last year’s Bison team unexpectedly made it to the "Big Dance" with a roster that did not have one senior.
They were a 16 seed that played North Carolina Central in a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio. The Bison won on a Wednesday night 78-74, hopped on a plane that night for Columbia, S.C., where it would play top-ranked Duke two nights later.
The Bison trailed only 31-27 at halftime. But Duke, led by 6-7, 285-pound freshman Zion Williamson, would go on to win 85-62. Williamson would be playing in the NBA the next year.
“Probably one of the best athletes I’ve seen with my own eyes,” said Bison point guard Vinnie Shahid.
One year later, Shahid and fellow seniors Tyson Ward, Jared Samuelson and Chris Quayle would help lead the Bison back to the NCAA Tournament. It probably didn’t surprise Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski who had this to say about the Bison after last year’s tournament game:
“I watched six of their games,” Krzyzewski said. “I told my guys ‘They don’t beat themselves.’ They play solid, really good basketball. I’m very impressed with them.”
It’s just too bad this year’s Bison squad couldn’t make another NCAA Tournament impression.