The Bison are advancing.
Despite trailing NC Central by two points with a little more than two minutes and 30 seconds to play, North Dakota State charged back and took a 78-74 victory at the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday.
It’s the second NCAA tournament win for North Dakota State. Its first came in 2014, when it upset No. 5 Oklahoma.
For NC Central, LeVelle Moton’s Eagles are still searching for their first NCAA tournament victory, despite making four appearances in the Big Dance since 2014.
THE BRACKET: Print the official 2019 March Madness bracket
Ward makes crucial buckets
With about a minute remaining, North Dakota State junior guard Tyson Ward caught the ball on the right wing posted up. The Bison led by one point.
Ward backed Larry McKnight down, then spun around, leaving McKnight in a daze, and laid the ball in the hoop, giving the Bison a three-point advantage. After another NC Central miss, Ward got the rock again, bulldozed his way into the paint and connected on a short shot at the rim, giving his side a five-point lead with less than 30 seconds to play.
A 6-foot-6 guard, Ward was important to the Bison’s success Wednesday night, leading the team in scoring with 23 points. He also tallied six rebounds and three assists.
How can @NDSUmbb take down Duke?— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 21, 2019
Doing what they do best - shoot that ball. #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/GBRAnWUdfG
Bison stick to what they’re good at
North Dakota State does a nice job taking care of the ball. They rank 25th in least amount of turnovers among all Division I teams this season, and the Bison turn the ball over the ninth least among the NCAA tournament field. On Wednesday, the Bison coughed up possession just six times to NC Central’s nine giveaways.
Out of all the teams in Division I men’s basketball, North Dakota State is the 11th best in free throw percentage, knocking down 77.5 percent of its charity stripe shots. Louisville and Ole Miss are the only NCAA tournament teams with better free throw averages. The Bison went 19-of-24 from the free throw line Wednesday night, good enough for a 79 percent clip.
North Dakota State isn’t the greatest at making 3-pointers, but the Bison aren’t bad at it either, knocking down 36.6 percent of their attempts from that distance. On Wednesday, they exceeded their average, making 9-of-20 shots from deep, good enough for a 45 percent connection rate.
North Dakota State has caught FIRE! 🔥— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 20, 2019
The Bison are up to 7 threes from behind the arc. #FirstFour | #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/iW4QKYa4uP
Duke is next
The NCAA tournament does not get any easier for North Dakota State. Next up is a trip to Columbia, South Carolina, where it'll face the No. 1 overall seed, the Duke Blue Devils, on Friday.
One thing North Dakota State won't have to worry about is defending Duke from behind the arc. Of all the teams in the NCAA tournament field, the Blue Devils are the worst at 3-point shooting, knocking down just 30.2 percent of their attempts from that far out.
To pull off an improbable upset of Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and company, the Bison will need to make their free throws, shoot well from outside, take care of the ball, and they'll need an outstanding performance from Ward or another player.
The Bison got all of those things against one team from Durham, North Carolina on Wednesday night. Can they do it again on Friday?
Mitchell Northam is a graduate of Salisbury University. His work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, FanSided, USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times. He grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and is now based in Durham, N.C.