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The True Importance Of North Dakota’s Initial NCAA Basketball Tournament Appearance

Let’s be honest.  Like most fans or alumna of The University of North Dakota Fighting Siou-hawx, I’m usually fixated on hockey at this time of year.  But Thursday night was the night UND basketball introduced themselves to the national stage.  Sure, it would be easy to simply dismiss this as yet another #15 seed predictably going down against a #2, but to do so would ignore an important story.

Let’s talk about the game itself.  Despite the fact the Siou-hawx lost to Arizona, that game showed nothing but promise for the future.  Again, it’s easy to dismiss a 100-82 loss, but again that misses the point.  The first thing that struck me was North Dakota stayed with the game they played all through this season; they got to the “Big Dance,” and they kept dancing with the one that brought them.  The Siou-hawx didn’t abandon an approach that snagged them 22 wins and a Big Sky Conference title, and there’s little argument that it worked on the offensive end.  The back-court had no problem hitting opportunities against Arizona; senior guard Quinton Hooker led UND with 25 points and fellow guards senior Corey Baldwin and sophomore Geno Crandall each notched an even dozen.

But the guy I was most impressed by because he exemplified North Dakota’s confidence in their offensive capabilities was 6’9″ junior forward Drick Bernstine. This guy spent every moment he was on the floor being matched against dueling NBA-caliber seven-footers.  In general, the Siou-hawx were outmatched size-wise; the Wildcats featured four front-court players 6’9″ or bigger and matched that with no shortage of 6’5″ guards.  As I said, even though Bernstine spent most of the game wearing at least one dude bigger than himself, he still poured in 20 and snagged 15 boards.

North Dakota Fighting Hawks forward Drick Bernstine (43) reacts with guard Quinton Hooker (21) and guard Geno Crandall (0) against the Arizona Wildcats. Photo Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

As ironic as it may seem, this loss culminated a season in which UND had the best season of it’s short Division I basketball history. They won the Big Sky Conference regular-season and tournament crowns, which earned the Siou-hawx their first trip to the NCAA Tournament, and even though they didn’t chalk up a win,  they accomplished something much larger.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our guys and our coaching staff for the season they’ve had,” said UND coach Brian Jones. “We stayed true to ourselves. We played our style regardless of who we were about to play.”

Let’s be even more honest…identity matters to a team which not only just became a Division I school, but just changed it’s mascot because of the NCAA’s screwed-up, hypocritical ideology.  I’m not going to get into that rant here because I’ve already explained my opinion; the important part is in the transition to college basketball’s top division. You have to remember that as part of that move up, North Dakota was not eligible for the NCAA’s “Big Dance” for two years.  That means the team which took on an Arizona squad stocked with potential NBA talent was made up of guys who signed up to play Division II hoop, or guys who couldn’t get scholarships anywhere else.

Only other UND alumna will understand this, but North Dakota is more than just a university; it’s an identity.  That’s why that whole “Sioux/Hawks” thing ultimately doesn’t matter.  North Dakota is remote and sparsely populated; it’s a land mass twice the size of Louisiana with a population smaller than Baton Rouge.  North Dakota doesn’t have the charms of a New Orleans; instead it features rich oil and coal deposits and some of the world most productive farmland.  Even thought it was founded by French fur traders 250 years ago, there’s no French Quarter in Grand Forks.

There’s also none of that tourist-friendly Gulf Coast climate.  Grand Forks, North Dakota is the definition of mid-continental weather extremes.  The summers can be brutally hot, balanced by winters where temperatures below -30 F are not uncommon.   In other words, while North Dakota may be slim on attractions, it’s cup runneth over on identity.

A coal train passing UND’s campus. Air temperature the day this picture was taken: -39 F. UND alum know what those steam plumes look like on extremely cold days.

By this point, you’ve probably noticed those long-sleeve “Mentality” bench t-shirts.  There couldn’t be a more fitting description for not just the university, but the entire state of North Dakota.  Given my previous description, understand there’s a unique bond amongst the residents of the Peace Garden State.  There’s only two kinds of people in North Dakota; the ones who want to be there, and the ones who have to be there.

The beauty is that amongst those who identify as North Dakotans, not only is it a distinction without a difference; it’s a distinction rooted in irrelevance.  If you call yourself a North Dakotan, why you do so doesn’t matter.  Granted, you may have to prove your claim, but once you are accepted, you are part of one of the largest families on earth. Without being too maudlin, the bottom line is what the UND basketball team did on Thursday night mattered because it gave North Dakotans a collective moment for pride in their state.

In a place without major league professional sports, the collegiate ranks are a unifying source of just such pride.  In Alabama, Auburn fans would never root for the Crimson Tide to be successful in anything. In North Dakota, the exact opposite is true. North Dakota’s in-state rival is North Dakota State, who happens to be a dynasty in FCS football.   Whenever NDSU make an appearance in the national championship game (as they have done five of the last six years), there’s plenty of UND fans cheering them on.  Likewise, when UND won it’s 8th hockey national championship last year, there was a lot of NDSU green and gold in the crowd.

Since there’s less than 700,000 of them, North Dakotans have a “when one succeeds, we all succeed” mentality. This is a state which has a “Hall of Fame” for North Dakotans who achieve major success.  Current members include band leader Lawrence Welk, NBA player/coach Phil Jackson, and Roger Maris, the man who broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record.  Ranking amongst likely future inductees are actor Josh Duhamel, author Chuck Klosterman, and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.  Other governments give awards of distinction, but this is  seriously a Hall of Fame; each award recipient has a hand-painted portrait of them hanging in a dedicated wing of the state capitol building.

One word explains why they did that: identity.

All that begs the question why did Thursday night’s game matter?  North Dakota State already broke the barrier as far as making a NCAA Tournament appearance goes.  As previously mentioned, those very same Bison have enjoyed a stunning level of success in FCS football.  The University of North Dakota is amongst the traditional elite powers of college hockey, so how can a twenty-point loss in a basketball game possible stack up?

Obviously, UND faced a “David and Goliath” scenario taking on Arizona, but the Siou-hawx brought the crowd in Salt Lake City alive with an unlikely run midway through the second half after most had given the boys from Grand Forks up for dead.  Never once did UND give up on their style of play; so much so there was in the second half hit a huge shot down by seventeen, and it was clear a momentum shift was coming right at the point everyone expected Goliath to deliver the death blow.  It was such a big moment Arizona head coach Sean Miller immediately called one of those timeouts intended to break up the flow of the game.  When’s the last time you saw a team ahead by seventeen points do that?

“Man, that was something special,” said UND senior Quinton Hooker. “You could just feel the energy, feel the vibe.”

It was during that time the Siou-hawx made things interesting by putting a major dent in Wildcats’ lead trimming the deficit to as little as seven at one point.  But then the basketball planets re-aligned, and Goliath delivered one knock-out blow after another.

But North Dakota kept getting up.

There’s your proverbial thousand-word picture.  At a point in the game where Arizona fans had already begun heading for the exits, the UND gang in green never gave up; they were vociferously protesting some shoddy officiating right up until the clock struck 00:00.  Speaking of proverbs, the ones about “never say die” and “it isn’t over until the fat lady sings”  are very much a part of that North Dakota identity.  That Fighting Hawks fan flying the bird and the rest of Gang Green are the descendants of people who emigrated to the desolation of the Northern Plains a century and a half a ago and survived broiling summers, cryogenic winters, insect plagues, and God only know what else in houses literally made of dirt.

That’s why you have to love North Dakotans.  One of the great honors in my life is to be able to consider myself a part of that world’s largest extended family.  Even though life has taken me multiple states and multiple decades from my days on University Avenue in Grand Forks, there are still days where I will be wearing one of various bits of UND swag, and somebody will walk up to me and ask if I’m from North Dakota. Then a conversation will ensue where I am reminded of the resilient yet overwhelmingly friendly nature of North Dakotans.

Though they are years past the sod houses, North Dakota is still a land of extremes.  Through it all, those who call the Peace Garden State home are not likely to back down from a challenge.  Grand Forks is a perfect example.  In a town which enjoys all the harsh realities of it’s sub-arctic clime, in a town that was nearly wiped off the map by a catastrophic flood 20 years ago, the university is such a source pride for Grand Forks that they always seem to see the bright side of any situation.  That’s why they paint “smiley faces” on all the water towers, and you surely aren’t going to scare them with a few taller basketball players.

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About J-Dub

What your view of sports would be if you had too many concussions

One comment on “The True Importance Of North Dakota’s Initial NCAA Basketball Tournament Appearance

  1. sportsattitudes
    March 21, 2017

    Watched them play their way into the Dance. If they get a couple more “water towers” on the squad they’ll put smiles on those fans for sure.

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This entry was posted on March 18, 2017 by in Basketball, Sports and tagged , , .

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