DAYTON, OHIO - MARCH 20: Tyree Eady #3 of the North Dakota State Bison dribbles against Larry McKnight Jr. #0 of the North Carolina Central Eagles during the first half in the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament First Four game at UD Arena on March 20, 2019 in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

First Four: North Dakota State holds off North Carolina Central

Just when it seemed North Carolina Central might finally earn an NCAA Tournament victory, North Dakota State changed the storyline back to what it’s been the past two years.

NDSU fought off a late surge from the Eagles to collect a 78-74 win Wednesday in the First Four at UD Arena, sending NCCU home from Dayton for a third straight year on this same stage.

The Bison built up a 13-point advantage in the second half before Central rallied back to take as much as a five-point lead with 5:24 left. However, the momentum didn’t last. The game was tied at 70 with 2:32 remaining, and North Dakota State went on a 5-0 run over the next two minutes to gain control. The Bison closed it out at the free-throw line.

North Dakota State advances to meet top-seeded Duke on Friday in Columbia, S.C.

“Obviously, a ton of credit to Coach (LeVelle) Moton and his staff,” NDSU coach David Richman said. “They came out. They had a great game plan. And we got up 13 and they never quit. And it’s March. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. And they certainly didn’t let it be easy for us, too. But extremely proud of our guys’ resolve. It’s March and we’re excited to keep dancing.”

North Dakota State went into halftime with a 40-34 lead and quickly extended it to double digits with the help of a 6-0 run. Trailing 49-36 with 16:06 left, the Eagles used the first media timeout to collect themselves and began chipping away at the gap.

A pair of Larry McKnight Jr. 3-pointers eventually gave NCCU its first advantage since midway through the first half, putting the Eagles up 61-59 with 7:18 left. The Bison didn’t regain a lead until Tyson Ward made a free throw to break the tie at 70 with 1:41 remaining. NCCU never got it back.

Tyson Ward led the Bison with 23 points, including eight in the final four minutes. Vinnie Shahid added 14 points and Sam Griesel and Jared Samuelson each chipped in 10. North Dakota State overcame a 38-29 rebounding disadvantage to claim the program’s second NCAA Tournament victory in 11 years as a Division I program. The Bison are 2-3 in four appearances.

“It’s really cool,” Richman said. “You think about it in so many ways. This is the 11th year of Division I eligibility. We’re still in so many ways in our infancy. And to have the success, to now have two wins in the NCAA Tournament, it’s a credit to a great bunch of guys, a terrific leadership, administration.

“When we made the jump, it wasn’t about just switching a Roman numeral. It was about to continue to compete for championships. And we were able to do that. And our leadership now understands that. They continue to build facilities and resources and those things. And there’s expectations at North Dakota State, but it’s a great place. When you have those expectations and people support you, you can do these things in March.”

Raasean Davis and McKnight Jr. each tallied 20 points for NCCU, and Randy Miller Jr. added 18 points, but NCCU got no points from the bench. The Eagles are now 0-4 in NCAA Tournament appearances, including losses to Texas Southern and UC Davis the last two years at the First Four.

“Obviously, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to,” Moton said. “Extremely proud of our guys. Thought we got into some adverse situations. And we showed our toughness. We fought and we fought and we fought some more. Unfortunately, with two minutes left, we just didn’t make the plays that were required to win a basketball game of this magnitude.”

“But hats off to North Dakota State. They made significant plays at significant times. And we just came up short.”

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