The Newberg High School standout hopes to lead North Dakota State to a Cinderella run

FARGO, N.D. — “We’re going to win this next year.”

Those were the words of former Newberg High School basketball standout Taylor Braun a year ago, as he sat, hopes dashed, at a press conference after his North Dakota State University team fell 73-67 to South Dakota State in the Summit League championship game.

They were stated simply, without bravado, swagger or any emotional COURTESY OF NORTH DAKOTA STATE UNIVERSITY - Stellar season - In his senior season, Taylor Braun has averaged 18.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game, all team highs, to earn player of the year honors in the Summit League.

Last week, Braun followed through on his promise, scoring 10 of his team’s final 11 points in the last 3:37 of the contest to lift the Bison to a 60-57 win over Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Braun capped his scoring outburst by completing a three-point play with 12 seconds to go that put NDSU up by four points, pretty much sealing the Summit League tournament title.

“There was no doubt in my mind,” Braun said of last year’s proclamation, “that we weren’t going to have to experience again what we were going through at that moment.”

Although his college basketball career has already begun to wrap up in storybook fashion, the 6-7 do-everything player hopes to pen one more chapter and, at the same time, show his hometown what he’s made of himself the past five years by shining on the big stage at the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament.

“It’s been a long five-year journey, but it’s been exciting to be rewarded for all the work (I’ve) put in,” Braun said.

The beginning of Braun’s path to the current moment was a difficult one, as he struggled to adjust to college life in Fargo and, because he redshirted his freshman season, life without truly competitive basketball.

That period proved to be critical, as the once-lanky Braun dedicated himself in the weight room, kicking off a physical transformation that could shock Newberg basketball fans Thursday when they see his 6-7, 210-pound frame on national television in the matchup between No. 12 seed North Dakota State and No. 5 seed Oklahoma.

Probably more impressive, however, has been the transformation to his game, which in high school consisted mostly of driving to the lane or dunking.

In his freshman season, Braun showed a knack for rebounding, leading the team with a 5.7 per game average, but exploded during his sophomore campaign, as he led the Bison by scoring 15.4 points and hauling in 6.6 rebounds per contest en route to first-team All-Summit League honors.

By then, Braun also proved himself to be an accurate shooter, finishing sixth in the league in three-point shooting (.450) and 10th in field-percentage (.520).

He kept it up as a junior, hitting 43.5 percent from downtown as he averaged 15.4 points and 5.2 boards, but also broadened his game, grabbing three assists and 1.6 steals per game. Unfortunately, Braun missed 10 games in January and February with a broken foot and settled for second-team honors.

It has all come together for Braun this season, however, as his 18.2 points, 5.5 rebounds 3.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game were all-team highs, helping him not only earn first-team accolades again, but also the Summit League Player of the Year award.

“He has been our heart and soul on a lot of different levels,” NDSU head coach Saul Phillips said. “He has some pretty good teammates, too, that have helped him a long, but this whole thing doesn’t happen if it’s not for Taylor Braun. He’s got his fingerprints all over the championship trophy.”

Phillips said the biggest transformation he’s seen in Braun as he’s become the focal point of the team is in his leadership skills, which in a very real way were lifted to a new level by his post-game comments a year ago.

“That kind of swagger, that kind of no-doubt statement of fact really permeated our team,” Phillips said. “There’s no question about that.”

Phillips also praised how well Braun has handled being the team’s go-to guy, which was on full display in the league title game. Braun struggled offensively for most of the game before heating up in the final minutes, then had what Phillips called a “Jimmy Chitwood” moment, referring to the classic basketball film “Hoosiers,” during a timeout immediately before his fateful three-point play.

“He said, ‘We should run this. Give me the ball, I’ll make it,’” Phillips said. “That tells you a lot right there. It was an easy decision at that point because, okay, if you have a kid that’s that confident in himself, you give him the ball. It was perfect. It was just what we needed.”

Braun has received praise in the national media, with some commentators citing him as the reason they picked the Bison to upset the No. 20-ranked Sooners.

Phillips said that Braun is accustomed to extra defensive attention, but those looking for a potential Cinderella team for their tournament bracket should also know that NDSU is one of the most balanced teams in the country with four career 1,000-point scorers — Braun leads that group with 1,633 — and a possible fifth sitting on 978, which would be an NCAA record. NDSU also owns the top field-goal percentage in the nation at 50.9 percent.

Braun joked that he hopes he will shoot well so that people won’t think “it’s all talk,” but on a more serious note is looking forward to representing his home town on the national stage.

“It will be fun to show off what I’ve been doing these last five years for Newberg and just have fun with this experience,” Braun said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m just looking to soak up everything and enjoy it.”

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