Bison men’s basketball defeats St. Thomas and Western Illinois to claim #3 seed

Herd opens Summit League Tournament play against South Dakota on Sunday

Bison pick up critical home win over St. Thomas 73-64 

Entering the final two games of the regular season, the Bison men’s basketball team sat tied for third in the Summit League with a record of 9-7. The team also fighting for the third seed is the St. Thomas Tommies, who happened to be the team the Bison would face on their own court. The Tommies tried to shoot their way to victory attempting 46 threes but made just 26% of them. Despite this, the Bison still trailed at the half. 

Each team began a bit slow, combining to miss the first five shots of the game but picked it up from there. St. Thomas’ first eight shots from the floor were all from behind the three-point line, hitting three of them. It wasn’t until the 15:00 mark that Ryan Dufault made a reverse layup for St. Thomas. 

“We kind of knew that coming in too,” Bison guard Boden Skunberg said of the Tommies’ barrage of threes. “They’ve got a lot of shooters so we did a good job tonight besides a few offense rebound kick outs.” 

The Tommies kept chucking it from three as they attempted 19 long balls through the first 14 minutes of play. Parker Bjorklund and Ben Nau connected on a couple of shots from deep but strong free throw shooting and jumpers from Lance Waddles and Damari Wheeler-Thomas kept the game tied at 26 apiece with 5:31 to go. 

In the final stretch of the half, neither team could put the ball in the hole even if they were hovering over it. The Bison missed six straight shots until Andrew Morgan finally got a bucket down low three minutes later. The Tommies themselves struggled mightily, missing nine consecutive shots at one point.  

St. Thomas was able to get on the board with a few free throws but it wasn’t until a layup from Rohde with 32.8 seconds left that St. Thomas made a field goal. Each team finished the half making just 1 of their final 11 shots and St. Thomas held a slim 31-28 lead at the break giving the Bison some work to do. 

“We just weren’t playing hard at all,” Skunberg said on the halftime message. “We kind of came together as a team, got in a stance and just started talking and playing together.” 

The Bison came out of the break strong, climbing out to a 37-33 lead in the first few minutes. Wheeler-Thomas got the scoring started with a jumper, then hit the Bison’s only second-half three-pointer moments later to give the Herd a 4-point lead. Grant Nelson was also just getting going for North Dakota State as he would finish the day with 20 points and 10 rebounds, good for his 7th straight double-double. 

St. Thomas stayed well within reach, however, and trailed by just two with under 10 minutes to play. The Bison would slowly pull away as St. Thomas went cold. The Tommies started just 1-9 from three, allowing the Bison a window of opportunity to stretch their lead. 

After a slow first half, Bison guard Boden Skunberg really picked it up in the second half. A drawn charge and pull-up jumper from the 6’5” guard pushed the lead up to seven at 53-46 with under 8 minutes to play. Skunberg finished with a 16-point, 12-rebound double-double much of which came in the second half. 

“I was just shooting dumb shots,” Skunberg said on his first half. “I should have made an extra pass to a lot of the shooters and I feel like it was a good adjustment in the second half.” 

For the first time all day, the Bison lead was in double-digits with about five minutes to play. Nelson hit a tough long-range two and Skunberg finished through the contact for an ‘And 1’ to extend the lead to 62-49. 

St. Thomas would try to make another run at the Herd, but the Bison put the game away at the free throw line. Free throw shooting has been an issue at times this year, but it was not an issue on Thursday as North Dakota State went 18-20 from the line. Skunberg and Wheeler-Thomas did the heavy lifting as they were a perfect 12-12 from the line. 

“It’s very important,” Wheeler-Thomas said of hitting shots from the line. “I know we had a couple games where we shot them terrible. Coach got on us about it and since then we’ve just been up.” 

The trio of Nelson, Wheeler-Thomas, and Skunberg led the way in the second half, combining for 36 of their team’s 45 points. Those three helped the Bison pick up their fourth win in their last five games. 

NDSU forward Grant Nelson goes for a layup against St. Thomas on Thursday at Scheels Center. Nelson and the Bison defeated the Tommies 73-64 in Summit League action.
Photo Courtesy | Hayden Austin – the Spectrum

“Victories are hard to come by,” Bison Head Coach Dave Richman stated. “Definitely thought we flipped the switch in the second half and were able to push through. Credit the guys.” 

The Bison would have one final game on Saturday afternoon against Western Illinois. If the Bison win they clinch the three-seed but a loss drops them to either the #4 or #5 seed. The Bison have not been lower than #3 going into the Summit League Tournament since 2019, which they eventually won. 

“We need to get better tomorrow,” Richman said matter-of-factly. “If we can do those things that’ll carry over. Western is a good team.” 

Skunberg’s shot at the buzzer lifts North Dakota State over Western Illinois 71-69 

With one game to go in the 2022-23 regular season, the Bison needed a win over Western Illinois on their home floor to clinch the third seed going into the conference tournament. Not only did the 2,602 in attendance bring the juice but the homegrown products Grant Nelson and Boden Skunberg did as well. Nelson had himself a day as usual, dropping 23 points with a season-high four 3-pointers. His counterpart, Boden Skunberg, dropped a team-high 24 points. The two most important of which came when the final horn sounded. 

Before the duo got going, the whole Bison team started a bit slow before developing some continuity. Western Illinois coasted to a 7-0 lead through the first four minutes as the Herd couldn’t connect on any of their first six shots. However, Damari Wheeler-Thomas finally got the Herd going with a three from the left corner moments later. 

Nelson and Jacari White also had themselves a solid first half as well. Nelson was able to drive to the rim and step outside to knock down shots as he hit three of his four threes in the first half. White, in back-to-back possessions, hit a three and cooked his defender for a reverse layup moments later. 

After trailing 12-10 with 13:30 to play, the Bison went on a 30-15 run over the next 11 ½ minutes. Picking up where he left off on Thursday, Skunberg started to get hot. He and Nelson both continued to hit shots from outside and inside for the rest of the half. They also drew fouls on three-point shots a total of three times in the first half and cashed in 8 of their 9 shots from it. 

After WIU’s Trenton Massner hit a pair of free throws late in the half, the Bison went into the locker room holding a 42-31 lead. Skunberg and Nelson each scored 15 points to lead the charge and as a team, North Dakota State had 50/43/89 shooting percentages. 

The second half would be quite a different story for North Dakota State. Western Illinois put on a press that the Bison had trouble handling at many points during the half and was a key contributor to trimming the North Dakota State lead to single digits and ultimately giving the Leathernecks a lead. 

“We didn’t handle it very well at all and they came back,” Skunberg said of the 2nd half pressure. “Something we’ll work on for sure.” 

By the time the clock ticked under 8 minutes, the Bison lead was already down to 5 at 59-54 after Massner nailed a three and Richman called a timeout with 7:53 to play. The Bison challenged Wheeler-Thomas with the task of defending Massner but it didn’t matter as he scored a game-high 16 second-half points. 

“He’s a great defender,” Skunberg said of the reasoning for the defensive switch. “He made some tough shots but he was in him the whole game.” 

After a bunch of back-and-forth action, Skunberg and the Bison stayed on the attack. On a drive to the rim, Skunberg was fouled and drilled both shots from the line with under a minute to play to give his team a 68-67 lead. After a couple of defensive stops by each team and a Leatherneck turnover, Grant Nelson was fouled with 19.8 seconds to play with an opportunity to extend the lead to three. 

Nelson hit the first but could not hit the back end, giving WIU a chance. The Leathernecks went to their go-to guy Trenton Massner, who drew a foul on Streit with just a tick under 10 seconds remaining. Massner hit both despite the raucous crowd to knot the game at 69 all. 

With 9.6 seconds to go, the Bison came out of their timeout with Nelson inbounding the ball. Nelson, who the play was originally designed for, got the ball into Skunberg before receiving it back. Nelson crossed halfcourt and was double-teamed at the top of the key forcing him to dish it off to Skunberg on the right side. 

“They kind of showed two on me,” Nelson described. “Boden was in the right spot and he made the play.” 

The Bison’s second-leading scorer drove and buried a game-winning shot over his defender as time expired. 

NDSU guard Boden Skunberg scores two of his 24 points on Saturday at Scheels Center. Skunberg’s field goal at the buzzer gave the Bison the 71-69 win over Western Illinois and clinched the #3 seed in the Summit League tournament. Photo Courtesy | Hayden Austin – the Spectrum

“I think Grant just did a good job,” Skunberg said applauding his teammate. “He got doubled like usual. Made a good pass and I was just in the right spot at the right time.” 

The shot sends the Bison into the conference tournament as the #3 seed. Despite the exciting weekend and finish to it, the team wasn’t too thrilled about the final 20 minutes of play. 

“I think I’m pleased to get the victory,” Richman stated. “I’m not so sure after that second half we didn’t deserve to lose and that wouldn’t have been better for us. Clearly in a state of heightened emotion still going to be transparent. Really disappointed in our second half. Thought we were lackluster. I thought we were entitled. I thought we were selfish. We missed a tremendous opportunity to get better in the second half.” 

The Bison have clearly set a standard no matter the makeup of their roster. Despite winning 11 of their last 16 games with a rotation that involves seven of nine players that are sophomores or younger, a second-half performance like this and a 3rd-place finish isn’t satisfactory. 

“Bottom line is they’re still results and we didn’t sign up for 3rd place,” Richman said honestly. “Have we gotten better? I think so, I hope so. Do we have a long ways to go? Clearly, we do.” 

The Bison (14-16, 11-7) will take on the sixth-seeded South Dakota Coyotes in the quarterfinals of the Summit League tournament. The game at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. will tip-off at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 5. The game can be seen on Midco Sports, or you can listen to 107.9 FM – The Fox & Bison 1660.  

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