The North Dakota State Bison earned the right Wednesday to play Zion Williamson and the Duke Blue Devils in the 2019 NCAA men's basketball tournament.
North Dakota State defeated the NC Central Eagles 78-74 in a First Four showdown between the East Region's No. 16 seeds in Dayton, Ohio. The Bison will face the top-seeded Blue Devils on Friday.
Tyson Ward (23 points, six rebounds and three assists) led a balanced attack for the Bison that featured six players scoring seven or more points. The game was tied with less than two minutes remaining when Ward went into takeover mode and scored five consecutive points to create critical breathing room.
Raasean Davis was dominant for the Eagles with 20 points and 16 boards, while Larry McKnight Jr. added 20 points behind four three-pointers. Still, it wasn't enough to overcome Ward's late charge.
North Dakota State Can Give Duke a Scare if it Controls Pace
Few teams can run with Duke, and North Dakota State isn't one of them.
According to KenPom.com's tempo rankings, the Blue Devils are the third-fastest team in the tournament, while the Bison are 312th in the country. Mike Krzyzewski's team consistently pushes the ball in transition with Williamson and RJ Barrett filling the lane and looking for dunks, Cam Reddish sprinting to the perimeter for open looks, and Tre Jones directing the action as a facilitator.
The only way the Bison can stay within 20 points is by using the entire shot clock on almost every possession to shorten the game and frustrate the top seed.
By using that time and slowing the pace, North Dakota State can negate Duke's athletic advantage and work for good looks so the Blue Devils have to take the ball off the baseline instead of getting out in transition on long rebounds.
Like a football team controlling the clock with the run to keep a talented quarterback on the sidelines, holding the ball as long as possible prevents Williamson from unleashing rim-rattling dunks on the break and overwhelming the No. 16 seed with talent.
Forcing the Blue Devils out of their comfort zone and into a closer-than-expected half-court game could lead to them pressing and rushing contested shots in an effort to build quick momentum. That's the one area where they are vulnerable, as they're shooting a mere 30.2 percent from three-point range this year.
North Dakota State fares better in half-court sets with its shooting, as it has connected on 36.6 percent of its triples as a team.
It had seven three-pointers in the first half alone against NC Central and can turn toward Jared Samuelson (46.4 percent), Cameron Hunter (42.4 percent) and Tyree Eady (41.2) for open looks when it needs a scoring spark from the outside.
If North Dakota State's shooters pull Duke's defenders away from the rim, Ward can then exploit openings in the lane down the stretch like he did Wednesday.
A half-court shooting contest with limited fast breaks and a controlled style of play will keep the Bison within striking distance for the majority of the game, and they have the shooters to hit the pressure-packed looks in crunch time.
Executing against NBA-level talent is much easier said than done, but the Bison at least have a blueprint for a miracle in place for their battle with mighty Duke.
North Dakota State faces the tournament's No. 1 overall seed in Duke on Friday in the round of 64 and will attempt to become the second No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 in the event's history.