A week ago they were on the big stage at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, playing the defending national champions in a game they were supposed to have no chance of winning.

No one from North Dakota State believed that. Neither did any of the 10,000 fans who drove down I-94 from Fargo to cheer the Bison on in their first NCAA tournament appearance.

“My last memory of college basketball was walking off the court to their cheers,” senior Brett Winkelman said. “They’ve given us so much over the last few years.”

Now the Bison are giving back. They’re trying to save their town.

Once again, the odds are against them.

Snow was falling Wednesday in Fargo, just more bad news in the city’s fight against the swelling Red River. The bad weather was hampering efforts to fill a staggering 2 million sandbags to protect the city amid new projections that the river would crest at levels never before seen by the weekend.

Thousands of people from all walks of life, many of them with vivid memories of the disastrous 1997 floods, are racing around the clock to keep the city dry.

With school canceled, students are stacking sandbags, while others are taking time off from work to do what they can to help.

Working right alongside them, shovel for shovel, are coach Saul Phillips and the Bison basketball team.

Had a few more bounces gone their way they might be in Indianapolis right now, practicing for a third-round game against Michigan State. Instead they’re working on something a little more urgent – saving people’s homes.

“It’s just the way of life around here,” Winkelman said. “It’s obvious that if anyone needs a helping hand, they can expect to get help.”

People in Fargo first began worrying about a possible flood about the same time the Bison were eliminated by Kansas in the first round, a game they were in until the final minutes. The Red River is bloated from heavy winter snows made even worse by spring rains, and has risen some 20 feet in the last week alone.

The prognosis isn’t good, which makes the sandbagging even more critical. Every able body is needed, including the big bodies of the Bison.

Phillips began calling his players during the weekend when it became apparent how bad things might get. He hoped to have the entire team working together, filling and stacking the sandbags.

His players beat him to it. Half of them were already on the front lines.

“You go from a terrific diversion like the NCAA tournament to everybody literally walking down streets asking if anyone needs help,” Phillips said. “It’s a really weird dynamic. I don’t think you could find two more opposite deals.”

The team has worked together the last few days, going house-to-house near the river to offer help. Like all volunteers, they’re braving freezing temperatures and muddy lawns that quickly give way to size 17 boots.

The people being helped are not only grateful, but eager to talk some hoops.

“They want to talk about the Kansas game and how much fun it was to watch,” senior center Lucas Moormann said.

The basketball players are just a small part of an army of thousands of volunteers, some from other towns, who have been working long hours to protect homes and businesses along the river that separates the city from Moorhead, Minn. They work in shifts as dump trucks loaded with sand rumble by on a continuous loop.

Phillips worked an extra shift, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., figuring that would be a time the city would be hurting for volunteers. He was wrong.

“I went to the Fargodome to hop on a bus and the buses were all jam-packed,” the coach said. “There were so many college students on them going out to help.”

A week ago those students, like the rest of the town, were ready for a wild ride in the NCAA tournament. It didn’t happen.

Now, instead of coming together for a team, they’re coming together for a town.

“If this is our country’s future,” Phillips said, “then we’re in awfully good shape.”

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