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The “almost” March moments you’ll forget, but shouldn’t

North Dakota State didn’t come back from a 25-point hole, but nearly did and that’s something notable in and of itself.

NCAA Basketball: North Dakota State at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

To be clear, Tuesday night was about Oral Roberts.

The Golden Eagles’ romp at the Summit League Tournament championship was bookended by a fast start and Francis Lacis turning himself into a wall to clinch ORU’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 13 years. It was a special night, and there’s plenty of well-deserved press to come on the Golden Eagles.

But in between was a furious North Dakota State comeback that will vanish into the March mist. That’s inherently unfair, but part of what makes this month so fun.

That the second half of the Summit League title was garnering any of the general college basketball universe’s attention alongside BYU pestering Gonzaga was a minor miracle. As they did in the semifinals against South Dakota, the Bison entered the locker room at halftime behind on the scoreboard. But unlike against the Coyotes, it looked like the game had already been settled.

ORU ran out to a 25-point halftime lead through a tenacious defensive effort that seemed to have a Golden Eagle planted between NDSU and the basket at all times. Up against a scorer like Max Abmas and team firing on all cylinders, the likelihood of a comeback seemed dim. After all, it was a year ago in that championship that the Bison themselves planted a 27-point halftime deficit on North Dakota, in a game they would ultimately win by 36 points.

Dave Richman talked about his locker room speech.

“We just talked about four minutes at a time and chipping way. To our guys credit they just bought in,” he said in the postgame press conference posted online. “They dug deep and found different ways. We weren’t ready to go home.”

Rocky Kreuser was the primary way the Bison charged back into the game. His 21 points after the break helped NDSU flip a sluggish 21.9 percent shooting performance in the opening period into a 56.3 percent effort in the second half that trimmed down the lead. His and-one on a driving, forceful layup cut the lead to just five at the under four media timeout, and cemented that the game was truly on.

Even as Kareem Thompson hit a floater with under a minute left to push a lead that had dwindled to two back to four, the Bison were not done. Abmas would ultimately win the game at the free throw line, supported by Lacis’s tremendous defensive stop on Sam Griesel that stunted NDSU with just two seconds left.

Nonetheless, it took that final piece of defensive wizardry to clinch a game that had seem out of reach for NDSU.

Kreuser and junior Tyree Eady talked about the team’s sense of urgency, refuse to lose attitude and jump in energy in the second half after the game. It all swirled together to produce that 52-point second half — from a generally slow-paced team, no less — that had ORU sweating as it closed in on its long-awaited return to the NCAA Tournament.

It made for a memorable Summit final, but as casual fans around the country clicked away, it’ll likely fade into national obscurity. Just like Tra-Deon Hollins’ three-pointer that just rimmed out at the buzzer in the title game four years ago, a moment itself that should have its own lasting place in college basketball’s general memory.

An Omaha native, nearly leading the Mavericks to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history by hitting a dramatic shot in front of arena cloaked in raucous blue and yellow? That would’ve made for March gold.

“We were one play from being in the tournament we wanted to be in and didn’t quite get there,” Mavericks coach Derrin Hansen said during the 2017 offseason. “But at the end of the day we had a special season with a special group of kids. Now it’s our job to replicate that again, but one more step.”

Instead, Omaha’s tight loss in its special season became a part of the narrative that built Mike Daum and the T.J. Otzelberger-era Jackrabbits. In turn, surviving a furious comeback from the league’s recent standard bearer and Kreuser-Eady-Griesel nucleus adds to the cache of a Golden Eagles team headed to the NCAA Tournament with surge of momentum.

Abmas is a danger all by himself, proving in the Sioux Falls run that he can score under the brightest lights (23 points in the final), and find other ways to help his team win when necessary (10 assists in the semifinal over SDSU). The supporting cast is firing on all cylinders after career nights from Thompson and DJ Weaver during the tournament, and ORU’s proficiency from deep is the stuff of higher-seeded nightmares. To his credit, Obanor (21 points, 9 rebounds against NDSU) will be a problem for whatever (likely) high major front court the Golden Eagles draw.

That ORU had to survive a furious comeback is now another part of its narrative, and for that the Bison shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s why we love March, and why we should relish every step of the way.