Third time is not a charm for the Bison
After two straight years of heartbreak in the Summit League Championship Game, the Bison earned their way back yet again hoping the third time is the charm. However, this year’s version of the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles has been far ahead of the pack all year. The Eagles manhandled the Bison on Tuesday night, doing no wrong for much of the game as they won their second Summit League Tournament championship in the last three seasons, both coming against the Bison.
The onslaught was on right from the get-go as Oral Roberts rolled to a quick 15-3 lead. Through the first four minutes of play, ORU hit three shots from beyond the arc. After Issac McBride hit a corner three, David Richman had seen enough and called a timeout with 16:04 to play.
“They just punched us in the face,” Bison guard Boden Skunberg said candidly. “Did a bad job of carrying over the scout. It was a struggle in the first half for sure.”
Photo Courtesy | Dave Eggen – Inertia
The timeout would not help as the route entered full force. In the next nine minutes, Oral Roberts hit four more shots from three and led 35-11. While Max Abmas was held to just three points to that point, he was dishing out passes like a true point guard as he had six assists. A few minutes later, he added a couple more, doubling his season average in the first 20 minutes with 8.
“Just playing basketball the right way,” Abmas stated. “When they’re so focused on me, that just leaves my teammates open who’ve put in a lot of time in the gym too and they’re going to go out there and perform.”
On the receiving end of those passes were starters Connor Vanover, Kareem Thompson, and Patrick Mwamba off the bench. Mwamba led the way in the first half scoring a season-high 17 points in 14 minutes.
“It feels good,” Mwamba said of having an impact off the bench. “You never know when they are going to call your name. I was just ready.”
North Dakota State could not get anything going on the offensive end of the floor. The Bison shot 7-26 (26.1%) in the first half and just 1-8 from three while scoring a season-low 20 points. The Eagles’ defensive anchor Connor Vanover was a presence all night. The 7’5” Arkansas transfer made it impossible for defenders to get shots off as he recorded six blocks on the night.
“It’s very unique,” the Bison Head Coach described of Vanover. “It is something that you cannot simulate in practice. Even the shots that he is not blocking he is altering; he is making you think about them.”
After a 20-point, 20-rebound double-double in last night’s semifinal win, Grant Nelson was not himself on Tuesday. In the first half, Nelson finished with just 3 points and 3 rebounds on 1-3 shooting.
“That’s something too that I’ll go back and take a look at,” Richman stated on ORU limiting Nelson. “They just were the more assertive, aggressive team.”
Oral Roberts would not let up either as they rolled through the final stretch into halftime. Already up 28, Mwamba nailed a deep three from the top of the key to close the half. Through the first 20 minutes of play, the Bison faced an insurmountable deficit of 51-20. Boden Skunberg was one of the lone bright spots as he led the Herd with 10 points.
Meanwhile, Oral Roberts shot 56% from the field in the half, hit 9-20 threes and dominated the glass, outrebounding North Dakota State 20-12. Patrick Mwamba led the Eagles with 17 points on 6-12 shooting, and Max Abmas with 10 points and 8 assists led the collective charge for ORU during their flawless half.
The second half of play was still won by Oral Roberts but was nowhere near as dominant. Grant Nelson saw a little success by scoring 4 points in the first five minutes but tallied just two points from there.
Despite playing 30 minutes for the game, Nelson finished with just 9 points and 5 rebounds on 3-8 shooting. Being held to under double-digit points in, potentially, his last game at NDSU is obviously not the way Nelson wanted to finish the season. Nevertheless, Nelson’s historic season has been something Bison Nation will not soon forget.
The Herd started the half cold shooting 3-13 but the Eagles did not fare much better at 5-15. Through the second media timeout at 11:48, Oral Roberts still maintained a 65-32 lead. In the ensuing three and a half minutes, Max Abmas took over. A three-pointer and three perfect trips to the line recapped his scoring during that stretch as he surpassed 20 points on the night and finished with a game-high 26 points and 11 assists.
In hopes of a valiant comeback just like they did against ORU in the 2021 league title game, the Bison kept fighting but to no avail. The deficit fell as far as 35 at 80-45 but Damari Wheeler-Thomas kept the Bison going with 10 second-half points, six of which came at the free-throw line.
With the game stretched out, each team emptied its benches. Despite being down 36, NDSU’s Ryan Sletten recorded his first collegiate field goal with 33 seconds to play. The moment of rejoicing was short-lived as Oral Roberts celebrated on the court and punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons.
“Little bit of déjà vu from where we were 365 days ago to another historic team,” Richman recalled of last year’s loss to South Dakota State. “For us, there’s a standard to get on this stage and we haven’t been able to push over the last couple of years and that’s something that we have a challenge going forward to continue to be better.”
North Dakota State drops its third straight Summit League Championship game and finishes the season 16-17. A team with no seniors and a 3-11 start that was just one win away from a Summit League title is nothing for the Bison to hang their heads on.
“I love these guys,” Richman said of his team. “I coach them very hard for four months out of the year and they just keep showing up and are resilient. I do really feel like bright things are ahead.”
Oral Roberts proved why they are the class of the league and will get to represent the Summit League in the NCAA tournament next week. For the year, Oral Roberts set out with a goal of a championship in mind and achieved that without losing a game to a Summit League opponent.
“The goal was a championship,” Abmas said. “It is a testament to all the hard work we’ve put in. So much work put in for this moment right here.”
While Oral Roberts awaits to see what seed they draw in the NCAA tournament, the Bison’s quest to get over the hump next year starts now as Boden Skunberg stated. With such a young team, there is a lot of promise and hope that this group will stick together unlike last season when four of the Bison’s top seven starters transferred at the conclusion of the season.
“I don’t see any of us taking on that portal,” Skunberg assured. “I know me I am not going anywhere. I fell in love with the process. I fell in love with Dave as a coach. I think it will be an exciting year for us next year for sure.”