FARGO — The North Dakota State men’s basketball team opened up a 16-point lead early in the second half at Western Illinois on Thursday, lost it all and more with the patented vanishing offense du Bison, furiously hung on to send the game into overtime and ultimately won by rally in the two overtime sessions.
Macomb, Illinois final score: Bison 84, Leathernecks 81.
It was enough for a basketball fan watching the stream in North Moorhead to remark: ‘What just happened in the name of Marv Skaar?’
It was NDSU’s seventh victory in its last eight games, only one of which (a 19-point home win over Division I debutant St. Thomas) was within comfortable range. The rest were grind-it-out slugfests, decided by a possession or two, including two in overtime and two that included last-second heroics.
This edition of Dave Richman’s club isn’t going to earn many style points. But if you’re not ready to go 15 rounds in a physical defense-focused affair, it’s better not to go on the court.
If it’s not pretty, it’s effective. With four regular season games remaining, the Bisons are 10-4 in the Summit League, 18-8 overall. South Dakota State (13-0 apex, 22-4 overall) will claim the conference regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the postseason tournament in March, but the NDSU remains firmly in search of the second seed.
A No. 2 seed would put NDSU in the bottom half of the group, across from the Jackrabbits, and ensure the Bison wouldn’t see SDSU before the championship game if both teams advanced that far. A second seed would also give NDSU a day off between the quarter-finals and semi-finals if they won their first tournament game.
NDSU sits in third place in the league, half a game behind Oral Roberts for second place. But the bison control their destiny. The remaining NDSU games are Saturday at St. Thomas (2-10 high), next Thursday at home against ORU (10-3), February 19 at home against Kansas City (9-4 high) and February 26 at North Dakota. (Summit 2-11). If the Bisons win all four, they’ll be the second seed.
Given the high expectations placed on NDSU ahead of the season, including by the head coach, earning the second seed wouldn’t seem like a major achievement. That would seem expected considering the Bison fielded a team with seniors Rocky Kreuser, Sam Griesel and Tyree Eady, and rounded it out with ultra-talented youngster Grant Nelson and promising freshman Grant Morgan. Fill in the rooms around that core and NDSU was intriguing from the start.
But the path of 26 games from November 9, 2021 to today has not been linear. The Bison struggled during non-conference periods and the first game of the league schedule. The NDSU was 3-3 in the conference after back-to-back unsightly losses at home to Western Illinois and on the road to Kansas City in mid-January.
Griesel and Nelson’s injuries played a part, no doubt, but there was always a feeling that something was missing. NDSU was outscored 13-2 in overtime against Western Illinois at Sanford Health Athletic Complex, its only basket after Richman called a timeout with seconds left.
What the recent eight-game streak spawned — the Bison’s only loss was on the road by four runs to SDSU — is reality and appreciation.
Reality: NDSU is what it is. Expecting the Bison to blow at opponents, even when they get into position to do so, is a waste of energy. NDSU routinely opened double-digit leads only to stagnate offensively and watch the lead evaporate.
They led by 16 against the Leathernecks and then scored a field goal over the next nine minutes. It’s a feature of this team, not a bug.
“It’s a maddening program,” a keen Summit League basketball watcher sent me after the game.
Indeed. But the last eight games also showed a tenacity that kept the Bison in the conversation as a possible NCAA Tournament qualifier. Still a collection of grinders under Richman, NDSU is likely going to be tough in Sioux Falls. SDSU and ORU would rather not have to play the Bison in the tournament.
The Bisons are physical, they play defense, they rebound and they are relentlessly blue collar. They find a way, and it’s often triggered by an unexpected player.
Against Western Illinois, the Bisons trailed by three in the first overtime and missed a shot. Maleeck Harden-Hayes used his athleticism to leap above the scrum under the hoop and swing the rebound past the 3-point boards to Eady, who buried a jump shot to tie the game.
What looked like an eventual two-possession deficit was a draw. It’s the little things.
The dangerous thing about a team that constantly lives on the edge is that they could easily fall. You can’t watch NDSU’s last four regular season games and say he’s going to win them all. You cannot doodle them in the title game in Sioux Falls. The Bisons just haven’t earned that kind of trust.
But winning games the way they won them, especially the one against the Leathernecks, is enough for a watcher to show deserved appreciation.
It hasn’t been perfect and may never be with this group, but the Bison are in a good position to be well placed in March. If a guy stops banging his head against the wall long enough, he’ll notice that’s all that matters in the end.