Luck is on North Dakota State's side in Marquette upset

The greatest win in North Dakota State history was forged by grit, determination, and maybe some lucky copper, Kyle Whelliston writes.

Updated: December 3, 2006, 11:46 PM ET
By Kyle Whelliston | Special to ESPN.com

MILWAUKEE -- The greatest win in North Dakota State basketball history, and arguably the greatest upset of the year so far, was forged by grit, determination, and maybe even a little bit of lucky copper.

"My assistants know that I'd better find two pennies with their heads up before each game," said Bison head coach Tim Miles minutes after his team defeated Marquette (No. 9 ESPN/USA Today; No. 8 AP) 64-60, pulling two newly minted cent-pieces from his pants pockets. "Tonight, I was complaining. I was scanning the floor, couldn't find any. But four minutes before game time, there was one in the locker room, and there was one right outside the door when I walked out."

Pennies that were made after 1992 have steel in them, so maybe there is some sort of karmic magnetism on the Bison bench. North Dakota State's unexpected championship in Marquette's 54-year-old early-season tournament came in just its third year as a Division I program. And copper is the primary metal in lightning rods, perhaps explaining the second strike on this currently independent program in calendar year 2006 -- on Jan. 21, up the road in Madison, the Bison shocked the 13th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers 62-55.

The double-doubling hero of that game, senior power forward Andre Smith, played a prominent role in this tilt as well, scoring a career-high 26 points by poking holes in Marquette's post positions for headstrong layups and acrobatic up-and-unders.

"He's our only senior, we have no juniors and mostly sophomores," said Miles of his 6-foot-8 inside presence. "[Smith] is great with the other guys, and he tries hard to be a leader for those guys. He's also a true go-to post player, and in the motion offense you need that."

And this was one of those contests in which the post seemed to extend all the way to the 3-point line -- whenever Bison guards Ben Woodside and tournament MVP Mike Nelson (19 points) hoisted a shot, they were met by strong physical resistance from flying Golden Eagles, resulting in several spectacular mid-air collisions. During the late second half, the floor was occasionally strewn with agonized Bison, and play was halted to attend to damage from slaps, bumps and body slams. NDSU deserved this win if only for the physical punishment it absorbed to earn it.

"We prefer not to play that way, but that's the nature of the game," said Miles. "It got really physical, but we're fortunate that we have great strength conditioning. The kids all stayed up in Fargo in that summer and lifted, and they did it together. So this kind of physical game doesn't faze them."

If you're a little-known school with an odd acronym trying to beat a power-conference team in their own building, it often requires a near-perfect storm. Not only are you up against the five on the floor, but there's the crowd to contend with -- which in this case repeatedly heckled and jeered the two short rows of green-and-gold supporters behind the NDSU bench. And there's also the often less-than-friendly officiating: When the Bison were up by five with 6:42 to go in regulation, they found themselves on the short side of two traveling calls and a carry over the course of two minutes but were still able to survive.

"When it comes to officiating, every team is fine if you're making shots," said Miles, whose team shot 48 percent for the game. "It's when you're not making shots when you go around looking for someone to blame. I always felt like we had things under control."

NDSU has also put its conference destiny under control, as it will leave the ranks of the independents to join the Mid-Continent Conference next summer. But for now, despite the landmark victory, the Bison know that they're still out in the cold when it comes to NCAA Tournament dreams.

"We don't get a March," said Miles. "That tournament that CBS holds at the end of the year, we're not a part of that, so this had to be a statement game for us … one of our mantras is 'Bring on the competition.' We've had that painted on the wall of our building since the 80s. That's what I love about NDSU, that kind of swagger."

OK, but about those pennies. Isn't it odd that there always seem to be two heads-up pennies near the NDSU locker room on game days?

"Yeah, [the assistants] plant 'em," said Miles with a laugh. "But I don't ask. They just know that if I don't find those two pennies, heads are going to roll. Someone's getting fired."

"Look, I'm Irish. I'm very superstitious -- it's crazy, don't ask."

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Kyle Whelliston

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Kyle Whelliston has contributed to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage since 2005. He covers mid-major programs for Basketball Times magazine, and will have a basketball travelogue of the 2008-09 season published next summer. Whelliston also founded midmajority.com and statistical database site Basketball State (bbstate.com).

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