SEATTLE – With more buzzer-beaters, upsets and general madness soon to come, college basketball fans won’t long remember a No. 15 seed from a game that ended after midnight in the Eastern time zone.
But it should be acknowledged when this is all over that one of the NCAA tournament’s most inspiring performances came courtesy of a previously unimposing player on a supposedly unthreatening team.
Going up against a frontline that has three players much taller and heavier than his largest teammate, Dexter Werner looked at the “Gonzaga” printed across his second-seeded opponents’ chests and charged straight at it.
A 6-foot-6, 240-pound brick of audacity, Werner did not start for North Dakota State in its 86-76 loss to the Bulldogs, but was the only player on his team that appeared mentally ready to take on GU’s size.
The sophomore appears on the court as someone who would be really taxing to guard in a YMCA league, and who was told to play forward based on his speed, not his size. After the game, he could not name a professional player he models his game after, likely because professional players aren’t built like Werner.
Likely not accustomed to much spotlight riding the pine in Fargo, North Dakota, Werner was demure when asked about his game.
“They game-planned really hard for our shooters and that’s the only reason I was getting the looks I was,” he said.
A polite statement, if not an honest one. His looks were self-created each time he drove into the body of the 7-inches taller, 48-pounds heavier Przemek Karnowski, turning over his right shoulder and flipping a feathery jump shot over the Polish mountain again and again to the tune of a career-high 22 points in 24 minutes, making 10 of 14 shots.
“We did know about him. In fact, we had clipped that move, over and over. He loves to go right,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “And all year long we have been built on trying to take 3s away, making them take tough twos. I think you would agree with me those were some pretty tough twos.”
The play of Werner more than compensated for the loss of starting forward Chris Kading, who at 6-foot-8, 240 pounds is NDSU’s largest player and the one best equipped on paper to match up with the giant Karnowski.
Kading proved to be a poor pest, collecting three quick fouls in the first half. Werner stepped in and paired with guard Lawrence Alexander (19 points) to nearly add another surprise to NDSU’s rapidly-growing list.
The Bison knocked off fifth-seeded Oklahoma in Spokane last season before losing coach Saul Phillips to Ohio. Picked to finish fifth in the Summit League this season under new head coach David Richman, the team again beat expectations and wound up back in the NCAA tournament.
“This group absolutely epitomizes what myself, as a head coach, and this culture will be about: Selfless, hungry individuals that care way more about the team than they do themselves. And what a resilient group. We had our back against the wall all year.”
The Bison began the game by hitting 3-pointers on their first three possessions, and cut an 18-point Bulldogs lead to just six points with 6:05 left in the game.
“They played a little bit tougher than we did, beat us on the boards and we decided at halftime that we just weren’t going to go down like that,” NDSU guard Paul Miller said.
NDSU’s dance ended quickly this year and the Bison’s contribution may merely have been to serve as a whetstone to keep the Bulldogs sharp for Sunday’s matchup against an impressive Iowa team. But they and their undersized substitute certainly made their mark in March.
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