Jacks out: North Dakota State ends SDSU's hopes for a Summit League title
Bison star Grant Nelson with a big night as NDSU advances to the tournament final on Tuesday.
SIOUX FALLS — For about a seven-minute stretch in the first half of Monday's Summit League tournament semifinal, South Dakota State played as well as they ever have in the Premier Center.
Trailing North Dakota State by a double-digit margin after they'd allowed the Bison to go on a 17-0 run to take control, the Jackrabbits suddenly caught fire.
They hustled for 50/50 balls. They hit tough shots. They got stops. They got some rebounds. Senior Alex Arians took a visible leadership role and his teammates responded.
An SDSU lineup that had looked nervous and shell-shocked moments before was suddenly riding the wave of a raucous crowd of 7,707. Instead of playing like they were afraid of letting those fans down, the Jacks were playing to the crowd like a rock star performing the chorus of his biggest hit.
The Denny was rocking. The Jacks were rolling.
It was a fleeting experience. North Dakota State dominated before that stretch and they dominated after. The Bison caught fire in the second half to go up by as much as 21 points on their way to an 89-79 win that sends the Bison into the tournament championship game for the fifth consecutive season. NDSU will take on the top-seeded Oral Roberts Golden Eagles, who are 20-0 in Summit League games this year.
Grant Nelson led the way for NDSU, with 20 points and a Summit League tournament record 22 rebounds, while Boden Skunberg had 24 points and Damari Wheeler-Thomas 17. After going 1-for-10 from 3-point land in the first half, the Bison went 7-for-10 in the second, and that, coupled with a defense that took SDSU's two leading scorers out of the game, was more than enough for the win.
"They went on that run and the crowd got into it," Nelson said. "It was tough to fight back against that, but we did it. We just had to stay into them defensively."
After NDSU's 17-0 run put them up 21-6, SDSU answered with their big counterpunch, taking a 29-27 lead and getting the Bison on the wrong side of the crowd and the momentum. It felt like the Jacks were going to cruise. But instead of just trying to get to halftime, NDSU made a point to answer before the end of the first. They closed the half on a 13-5 mini-run that gave them a 40-34 edge at the break, and instead of the fans sending SDSU to the locker room with deafening noise, the Bison were the ones leaving the floor feeling good.
"That's where we've grown so much," said Bison coach Dave Richman, whose team evened its record at 16-16. "We would have success and somebody would punch back and we could just never rally. Basketball is a game of momentum, especially in an atmosphere like this. Sometimes you don't see the growth in your team, but that's visible growth and maturity."
The Jacks cut the lead to three early in the second half, but NDSU soon took over. With Nelson dominating the boards and the Jacks offense struggling to find quality shots, the Bison were able to gradually stretch their lead. Nine, 11, 13, 15 — SDSU couldn't get stops and when they did they failed to capitalize. Arians was outstanding in the final game of his career, finishing with 20 points, six rebounds and five assists, while Matt Mims never stopped trying to bring his team back, ultimately hitting four 3-pointers and scoring a career-high 19 points. But once the Bison started bombing in 3s as the clock dwindled down, the Jacks were cooked.
"We were getting to our spots in the first half and made our run," Arians said. "But we were struggling to get stops on defense. They made their run and we just never really caught up."
Zeke Mayo had his second straight poor shooting night, finishing with 18 points but on 5-of-17 from the floor, while Matt Dentlinger was in foul trouble early and had just 11 points on 10 shots. William Kyle filled in when Dentlinger sat, and was overmatched.
The Jacks hit a flurry of 3s late, even getting within six in the final minute, but it call came way too late. The Jacks fall to 19-13 and coach Eric Henderson did not sound optimistic about postseason opportunities for his team.
"We ran into a buzzsaw tonight," he said. "(NDSU) played terrific. They probably have a 1st-round draft pick on their team (Nelson) and he played really good. We were just kind of fighting it the whole night. We could never get it going.
"They out-physicaled us," Henderson added. "If we get a few more stops and play with a different pace it might have been a different story."