Herd back on track in Summit league race
Bison use big first half to knock off Omaha in blowout fashion 84-58
The Bison men’s basketball team returned home following consecutive losses on the road to South Dakota and South Dakota State the previous week. They first took the floor against the Omaha Mavericks, who were 9th in the Summit League prior to Thursday’s game. The Mavericks were just 1-12 on the road before coming to Fargo and had lost their last seven games overall. Things would not get better for the Mavs, as they were held to 21% shooting in the first half and trailed by 30 at the intermission.
Prior to Thursday, first halves have been the Bison’s Achilles heel much of the season. Despite outscoring their opponents in the second half of games, the Herd was -68 in first half scoring differential through the first 24 games of the season. The first 20 minutes between the Bison and Mavericks couldn’t have been any different, as North Dakota State hit 73% of their first 22 shots to roar out to a 37-11 in the first 13 minutes of play.
After coming off a disappointing weekend, the Bison hit the ground running quite literally. Coach Richman relayed from Bison players that Tuesday’s practice was quite possibly the hardest practice of the year. Whatever it entailed, it sure got the Bison ready and determined to win.
“A lot of running but it carried over,” Bison forward Grant Nelson said with a smile. “We came in more locked in. I don’t love those but sometimes they’re needed.”
Following a 90-point thrashing by South Dakota State’s offense last Saturday, the Bison turned it around by holding the Mavericks to just seven made field goals in the first half, which amounted to a shooting percentage of 21.2%. Also, Omaha’s leading scorer Frankie Fidler, who’s averaging nearly 16 points per game in league play, did not record a single point in the first half.
“Defensively we were really locked in,” Bison forward Andrew Morgan stated genuinely. “We figured that if we want to keep moving forward and keep having success as we move on we’ve got to lock in on the defensive end.”
On the offensive end of the floor, the Bison were led by Nelson and Morgan along with freshman guard Tajavis Miller who led the team with 11 points. Since league play began, Miller is shooting 48% from deep, the highest on the team.
“Javis is just a really good basketball player,” Bison Head Coach David Richman stated. “I say this is a complete compliment, he does a bunch of things well and he understands the game.”
Coming out of the break with a 47-17 advantage, the Bison continued to stay steady offensively. After Andrew Morgan hit a three in the eyes of an Omaha defender, the lead had stretched to 69-31 with under 10 minutes to play. For the day, Morgan finished with 16 points and six rebounds, an improvement from his performances last week.
“I think it was overall just confidence and we kept wanting to attack the rim,” Morgan said about the Bison’s interior success. “We all had good feel on our shots and they were all good shots is what the big reason probably why that percentage was so high.”
Frankie Fidler, who as aforementioned, was locked up by Boden Skunberg and others for the entirety of the first half. The second half was a different story for Fidler, as he record 14 points on 5-8 shooting. Also, getting hot for Omaha was freshman guard Tony Osburn. Making his first four shots of the half, Osburn was on his way to a 12-point second half, doubling his season average.
However, it was far too late for Omaha. Despite outscoring the Bison 27-15 in the last 9:45 of play, the Mavericks would get nowhere close. Grant Nelson continued to impress as he quietly led the team with a 19-point, 13-rebound double-double on 8-12 shooting, as well as leading the Herd with five assists.
“Not only did he score 19, not only did he have 13 rebounds, but he had five assists,” Richman said of Nelson. “When you have an assist on over half of your field goals, you’re sharing it, you’re making the right play.”
As the clock rolled down and the Bison still maintained a substantial lead, Richman sent walk-on Ryan Sletten into the game with four minutes to go. With just 39.6 seconds remaining, the Larimore, N.D. product was sent to the line. After missing the first attempt, Sletten connected on the second for his first career point at the collegiate level.
“Really cool,” Richman grinned. “Tuesday’s practice, it was a doozy. Ryan finished everything. Struggled through it all, fought through it all and he earned that one point today. y. Pretty special for him to get that first point.”
That special moment would close the game as the Bison completed their largest victory over a DI opponent this year with the 84-58 win. The Bison had five players score in double figures and shot 52% from the field for the game. The win extended Omaha’s losing streak to eight games and put the Bison over .500 in league play before taking on Denver on Saturday.
Bison win second straight behind Skunberg’s 30-point performance
Returning to the floor following a 26-point smackdown of Omaha on Thursday, the Bison took on the Denver Pioneers on Saturday afternoon. North Dakota State has had great success against the Pioneers on the hardwood in recent history, winning ten straight including a 90-70 win earlier this season. The Bison, however, faced a scare on Saturday as the Herd trailed the Pioneers for much of the first half and trailed at the break.
Right from the start, Denver rolled out to a 16-7 lead in the first seven minutes and used an 11-0 run to do so while the Bison had missed six straight shots. North Dakota State would struggle to get going for much of the half, but the one consistent scorer was junior guard Boden Skunberg, who led the Bison with 12 first-half points.
“We’ve just got some young kids and you can see it in their eyes,” Bison Head Coach David Richman stated. “Bo sensed that this afternoon and he had to be a little bit more aggressive. He had to be urgent and not only was he, he delivered.”
Part of the reason Skunberg took more control was that the Bison dealt with foul trouble for much of the game. Damari Wheeler-Thomas, Joshua Streit, and Grant Nelson picked up two fouls in the first half. With Lance Waddles and Luke Yoder out of the lineup, depth can become an issue for the Herd while playing with an eight-man rotation.
“We were able to manage it,” Richman claimed. “And it was encouraging because I think that has been some of our Achilles heel down the stretch late in some first halves where we’ve had some key guys on the bench in foul trouble.”
In spite of foul trouble, the Bison would storm back and take the lead at 22-20 for the first time in over 13 minutes of game time after Skunberg drove through the lane for a bucket. However, prolonged offensive success would still be absent for the rest of the half, as the Herd made just one of their last six shots going into halftime. The Bison trailed by just two at 30-28 at the break but shot only 33% as a team in the first 20 minutes.
“Coach came in there, he was obviously disappointed,” Bison forward Grant Nelson said on the message at halftime. “We pretty much just said it’s on us, we’ve got to step up, we’ve got to do the little things and rebound and go play with poise on offense.”
In the first half, Nelson was held to just 4 points on just 2-7 shooting. However, he still made an impact as he finished the day with nearly a triple-double, collecting 11 rebounds and 8 assists. The baseline help the Pioneers were bringing on Nelson opened up passing lanes to other players, especially Skunberg who connected on six threes on the day.
“Take what the defense gives me,” Nelson stated on having a balanced attack. “If they’re doubling in the post that means someone’s open on the perimeter and tonight that was Boden. He did a great job hitting those shots and tonight it worked out in my favor.”
Skunberg and Nelson would continue to dominate in the second half. The Bison’s first bucket of the second half was a Skunberg three from the right wing after Nelson grabbed an offensive rebound. In just the first four minutes of play, Skunberg scored eight points to bring his total to 20. Shortly after, Andrew Morgan would hit a shot from the short corner to tie the game at 41 apiece.
In spite of the high energy from Bison Nation, the Pioneers wouldn’t go away. Marko Lukic, Lukas Kisunas, Touko Tainamo, and Tommy Bruner captained the ship as they combined for 36 of their team’s 40 second-half points.
After Skunberg hit a three to give the Herd a 4-point lead, Denver Head Coach Jeff Wulbrun called a timeout. Following the timeout, Denver would take a 56-55 lead. Skunberg would shortly respond with another three off a ball screen to regain the lead for the Bison. That, followed by a Nelson three in transition, prompted another timeout from Denver.
Out of the break, Wheeler-Thomas scored two of his 11 second-half points to push the lead up to seven at 63-56. Skunberg would then get another bucket off his own miss and reached a career-high 30 points for the day with the bucket.
“I’m extremely proud of Boden Skunberg,” Richman said in praise. “He maximizes his talent levels in every which way, shape, and form.”
Down the stretch, the Bison were able to hit 9 of their last 10 free throws to put the game away. Despite a poor showing in the first half, the Bison pulled away for a 78-70 win on their home floor.
Also, passing Chuck Bentson for the second-most wins in NDSU history with his 170th career win was David Richman, who seemed to take the accomplishment as trivial.
“I’ve been here a long time and you got good players, good assistant coaches,” Richman said dismissively. “We’re not talking about me.”
Next up for North Dakota State is a daunting road trip to Kansas City, Mo. and Tulsa, Okla. to take on the Kansas City Roos and Oral Roberts Golden Eagles on Thursday and Saturday evenings, respectively. The Bison will return home to the Scheels Center on Thursday, February 23 to take on the St. Thomas Tommies at 7 p.m.