The North Dakota State Bison men’s basketball team emerged victorious in two Summit League contests this past weekend, beating Omaha 73-58 and Western Illinois 80-69. The two wins pushed the Bison above .500 in conference action to a 4-3 record.
A strong first half vaulted the Bison to victory Thursday night against the Mavericks. Omaha took a brief edge in the first half, but the Bison did not trail in the game after the 11:26 mark when Cameron Hunter’s free throws gave the Herd a lead they would not relinquish.
Tyson Ward provided an aerial assault on the rim, throwing down a trio of slam dunks off breakaways in the first half. Ward’s acrobatics put an exclamation point on a first half in which he and senior Paul Miller combined for 24 points.
Ward has taken on a bench role recently, being replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore transfer Chris Quayle. The demotion is not a product of poor play but rather necessitated by a lack of bench production.
“Tyson understands his role. Tyson understands why he’s coming off the bench,” head coach Dave Richman said afterward. “You look at our bench production — or lack of it — and it’s nice to have that punch off the bench.”
The Bison took a 10-point lead into the second half and rapidly built on it thanks to the Mavericks’ cold stretch.
Omaha went nearly six minutes before scoring their first basket of the second half. It took 12 minutes and 49 seconds for UNO to break double digits in the second, but by then they’d already dug their own grave, as NDSU pushed their lead to 19.
In total, NDSU led the contest for more than 35 minutes, including the entirety of the second half. Miller finished the night with 25 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, but he thought the Bison could have played even better.
“Honestly, it felt like we didn’t play nearly as well as we could have,” the Waukesha, Wisconsin native remarked. “I think we’ve got a lot more in the tank, and hopefully we show that on Saturday.”
Miller’s aspirations were fulfilled against the Leathernecks, though not immediately. An inspired WIU team exploded to a 25-13 lead to start the game, spearheaded by true freshman Kobe Webster’s 18-point outburst in the first nine minutes.
Richman offered praise of the freshman dynamo, commenting, “Kobe Webster as you can see is going to be a problem in the league for a while, and he really got it going.’’
Webster’s jumper gave the Leathernecks their largest lead at 12 points, but following a timeout, NDSU stormed back. A 12-2 run brought the Bison within striking distance in three minutes.
Like the game against Omaha, the Bison took control midway through the first half and did not relinquish it. Western Illinois answered the run with a C.J. Duff 3-pointer, but Jared Samuelson later sunk a triple of his own that put NDSU on top for good.
The first half was punctuated by Miller’s reverse layup, which he spun off the glass and dropped through the hoop with time running out. The bucket gave NDSU a 42-40 lead and momentum.
NDSU opened the second half with 15 points in quick succession. Deng Geu put in a seven-minute shift in which he scored nine points and snared three boards to boost the Bison.
Geu spoke on his role on the team, saying it is to, “Come in and give the team a little energy and whatever the team needs from me. Once I saw the first shot go in, I just kind of settled in and got going.”
The Bison never let WIU draw closer than nine points after Geu took the bench, leading by as many as 13 points during his time on the court.
Miller ended the night with 26 points, one-upping his mark from Thursday. It is the ninth consecutive game in which the guard has scored more than 20 points. Since their matchup with Arizona on Dec. 18 Miller’s scoring average has increased in every single game, rising from 15.6 to 19.5 points per game.
“We’re still learning,” Richman said. “We’ve still got a long way to go, and I knew that. I wish we were a little bit better, obviously; I wish we were 7-0, but we’re not. We’ve had some failures, which is OK if we learn and benefit from them.”
At the midway point in Summit League play, the Bison, who sit third in the standings, continue their ascent this upcoming Thursday away against South Dakota State before coming home to take on South Dakota on Saturday.