North Dakota State powers past South Dakota State 89-79 to advance to Summit League Championship

Herd faces Oral Roberts for a trip to the NCAA Tournament

They say basketball is a game of runs and wow, did that prove to be true on Monday night between the Bison and Jackrabbits. As North Dakota State and South Dakota State faced off in the Summit League Tournament for the 6th time, the fierce rivals would not back down to one another despite some demoralizing stretches of basketball. When these two teams face off in any type of competition, it’s nearly a guarantee it’s going to be a dogfight.

After a back-and-forth first couple of minutes which saw the Jacks lead 6-4 thanks to a couple of buckets from Matt Dentlinger, the Baby Bison got rolling. The stifling Herd defense was in full force and gave no chance for any 2nd opportunities as Grant Nelson picked up 9 rebounds in the first 7 minutes of play. A cold stretch from SDSU allowed an enormous 17-0 run from the Bison in a span of five minutes from 17:16 to 11:50.

“They got us in the paint early,” SDSU Head Coach Eric Henderson said. “17 of their first 20 points were in the paint. The rebounding has been a concern of mine for the whole year. We got outrebounded early tonight.”

Andrew Morgan was an absolute menace in the paint in the first half, especially during that run. The 6’10” forward scored 7 points through the first 8:10 of play and finished with 12 first-half points with six of those points coming from the free throw line. Prior to Monday, Morgan had made just 51% of his free throws but he was on fire in the semifinals as he made 6-7 in the first half.

“The big fella was really good,” Bison Head Coach David Richman said with a smirk. “That’s what you see this time of year is guys that are able to take it up a notch. Those talented guys like Javis did last night like Andrew did today.”

Drives from Nelson, Morgan buckets and a couple of scores from Boden Skunberg spearheaded the Herd’s charge as they rolled out to a 21-6 lead. However, the Jacks clawed right back, going on a 22-6 run of their own in the next 7:36. Alex Arians entered full takeover mode as his fallaway jumper was money, leading him to a team-high 13 first-half points.

The Jacks’ defense picked up the slack a bit as well as they forced the Bison to settle on the offensive end. In the first half, North Dakota State hit 13 of 19 shots from two but just 1 of 10 from three. The Herd had a stretch offensively where they made just 1 of 8 shots allowing the Jacks to take a 28-27 lead with 4:14 to play.

Nelson and the Bison started to turn up after the final media timeout and finished the half on a 13-5 run. Nelson scored 6 points in the final 3:39 and finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds in the half as the Bison led 40-34 going into the break.

“It’s well-documented all the narrative and the buzz about the NBA and all these things and yet all he’s continued to do is prioritize NDSU basketball and winning,” Richman said of Nelson. “He was dynamic on the glass tonight. Obviously glad we’ve got him on our team.”

The Bison came out in the second half on fire and it continued for all 20 minutes. Hitting five of their first six shots, the Herd roared out to a 52-41 lead. After Boden Skunberg hit a tough turnaround jumper, SDSU called a timeout to try to regroup.

It made no difference as the Herd kept rolling. A few moments later, Nelson picked up his 17th rebound which set a career-high. Skunberg hit another tough shot to push the lead to 58-43 as he continued to fire on all cylinders.

Everyone seemed to chip in during the second half for NDSU. Skunberg led the team with 17 second-half points on the way to a game-high 24 points. The 6’5” junior could hardly miss as he connected on 10 of 15 shots and 4 of 8 from deep.

Damari Wheeler-Thomas also made an impact, mostly in the second half. Already with 7 second-half points, Wheeler-Thomas also had five assists in the half, three of which came in about two minutes of play. After a steal and dish to Tajavis Miller, Wheeler-Thomas fed Nelson who hit a long three to push the lead to 71-51 with just 7:32 to play.

“Damari Wheeler-Thomas was absolutely tremendous tonight what he did on both ends of the floor,” Richman said in praise. “That’s a freshman. It was big to get that third piece clicking tonight.”

The Herd wouldn’t let up as they continued to bury shots. Skunberg nailed a couple more buckets and Jacari White hit the Bison’s 7th three of the half. After a poor 1-10 in half number one, the Herd hit 7 of 10 threes in the second half including their first six. When White’s three ripped through the net, the Bison’s lead was up to 81-60 with 3:49 to play. To that point, the Bison shot 17-24 from the field in the half, good for 71%.

During the final stretch, Grant Nelson put the finishing touches on his historic night. Already with 20 rebounds, Nelson recorded two more boards in the last 3 minutes. The latter of the two with 3.1 seconds left, set a Summit League Tournament record of 22 rebounds in a game. After being fouled, the unicorn hit both free throws for a 20-point, 20-rebound night.

“It’s just crazy,” Boden Skunberg said of his teammate’s performance. “I think he had two less rebounds than the whole South Dakota (State) team.”

SDSU guard Alex Arians dribbles past NDSU guard Boden Skunberg in their semifinal game on Monday night at Denny Sanford Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. The Bison defeated the Jackrabbits 89-79 to advance to Tuesday’s championship game versus Oral Roberts. Photo Courtesy | Dave Eggen – Inertia

The Bison had four players in double figures as Skunberg had 24, Nelson 20, Wheeler-Thomas with 17, tying a career-high, and Morgan tallied 14. The Bison shot 56% for the game, 40% from three, and a yet again impressive 89% from the free throw line (17-19).

South Dakota State was led by Alex Arians with 20, Matt Mims with 19, and Zeke Mayo with 18 points. However, just like in Fargo earlier this season, the Herd held Mayo to a meager 5-17 shooting from the field. That along with 18 team assists are two of many positives to take into Tuesday.

“Damari Wheeler-Thomas did a great job on defense,” Skunberg said of Wheeler-Thomas’s defense. “If you didn’t know who he was you wouldn’t think he’s a freshman.”

The Bison advance to the Summit League Championship Game for the fifth year in a row and 9th time in the last 11 seasons. The Herd will face off with Oral Roberts who has yet to lose a game against a Summit League team this season.

“We’ve been here before but this time it’s going to be different,” Grant Nelson stated confidently. “We’ve got to come out like we have these past two games and give it our all.”

The Summit League Championship Game will tip-off from the Denny Sanford Premier Center at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 7. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN2 and can also be found on the radio at 107.9 The Fox.

“This is a terrific win in a hostile environment,” Richman stated. “Like we talked about last night, we need to able to flush this and move on because we certainly know the challenge that is tomorrow night.”

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