The Bison didn't have nearly enough at 13th-ranked Minnesota.
Rodney Williams scored a season-high 19 points, including a 360-degree dunk off a fast break, and Trevor Mbakwe grabbed a career-best 18 rebounds for the Gophers in a 70-57 victory Tuesday night.
North Dakota State's last win over Minnesota was in 1936.
"A top 25 team that comes out and plays with the energy they play with, the intensity they play with, they're not going to lose very often," Phillips said. "They're a legit 13. Tubby's got them playing very well. For those of you that don't know, yes, we are a good team, and at times they made us look just OK tonight."
Lawrence Alexander led the Bison (8-3) with 19 points, Taylor Braun added 15 and Marshall Bjorklund pitched in 12. Braun, who won two of the last three Summit League Player of the Week awards, fouled out with 3:57 left on a pump-fake power move by Mbakwe for a layup and three-point play.
The Bison were more competitive than in their visit to No. 1 Indiana on Nov. 12, an 87-61 loss, but they weren't able to hang with the Gophers the way they did last year in outrebounding the bigger Big Ten foe and falling 63-59. NDSU has beaten Minnesota twice in football since 2007, but basketball hasn't brought the same success for the Bison against the only major conference school for hundreds of miles.
"Minnesota is just a bear on the defensive end," Phillips said.
NDSU fell to 2-4 against nationally ranked opponents. The Bison beat Wisconsin and Marquette in 2006.
"We never quit. At about 10 minutes we were down 17, almost 20, and a couple years ago in that situation we probably would've folded and ended up losing by 30 or something," Bjorklund said. "But we battled to the end. That's a big thing with this team: We never quit and always seem to give ourselves a chance at the end."
The Bison made the NCAA tournament in 2009, but they finished 11-18 the following year, 14-15 in 2010-11 and 17-14 last season, playing in the College Basketball Invitational. With the quick-and-lanky Braun leading the way, they've got the potential to push out unanimous Summit League favorite South Dakota State if Bjorklund and the rest of the bunch can provide enough production. NDSU was picked to finish second in the conference in the preseason poll of coaches, sports information directors and media.
Bjorklund, who played at Sibley East High School about an hour southwest of Minnesota's campus, led a swarming, physical defensive effort underneath early in the game that forced the Gophers into a lot of fruitless possessions. Minnesota (11-1) didn't lead by more than four points until 5:36 was left in the first half, when Williams turned a steal into an uncontested fast break and the aforementioned fancy slam, the third 360 of his career, according to the Gophers.
"We're a little longer and more athletic than you'd think a team from Fargo would be at times," Phillips said. "I think we do a decent job of disrupting. We needed to do a little bit better job, without fouling at times tonight."
Minnesota coach Tubby Smith received a plaque from athletic director Norwood Teague and pats on the shoulder from his players before the game in honor of his 500th career victory, achieved on Saturday at USC. He didn't look interested in the pregame fuss, and he wasn't happy with his team's early performance, either. After one turnover by Joe Coleman, Smith leaped from his courtside stool and angrily kicked at the air.
But the Gophers kept their cool and pulled away before the break. Andre Hollins, on his 20th birthday, swished a couple of 3-pointers in the last 80 seconds to stretch the lead to 37-26. In between, Mbakwe jumped in the lane for a rebound and threw it down for a dunk in the same motion.
"It was definitely good for them and gave them some momentum going into the second half, up by 11 instead of up by three," Braun said. "We missed some shots, and they made some shots."
The Bison were simply overwhelmed down the stretch by Mbakwe's muscle and the athleticism of Williams, and they never came closer than nine points after halftime. They had only four turnovers over the last 23 minutes of the game but couldn't knock down enough shots to keep pace, finishing 7 for 20 from 3-point range.
The Bison travel to Baltimore this weekend to face Towson on Saturday.