A.J. Jacobson didn’t play like a freshman in his Summit League Tournament debut. On the biggest stage of his career, the ribbon-cutting grand opening for the shining jewel of the Sanford sports empire, the Denny Sanford Premier Center, Jacobson turned in the marquee performance of the evening. Jacobson led the way for NDSU with a career-high 23 points as the Bison pulled away for a 61-50 victory over a tough Denver team that pushed them to overtime twice this season. The Bison advance to the tournament’s semifinals on Monday night where they’ll face the winner of Sunday night’s game between IUPUI and Oral Roberts. The win improved NDSU to 21-9.
If there were any nerves, it didn’t show. “Fun to play in the postseason. It was one of those times you have to step up and play your best because every team is going to be playing hard,” said Jacobson. With the Pioneers focused on shutting down Lawrence Alexander, the Summit League Player of the Year, the Bison needed every bit of Jacobson’s performance. According to Denver head coach Joe Scott, Jacobson was the difference. “Jacobson, pretty much. It wasn’t so much Alexander, which was a big thing for us, guarding Alexander, we did a good job guarding him, but sort of let some other guys beat us.”
Jacobson started fast and never let up. After a mid-range jumper to open the scoring, with the Pioneers keyed on Alexander, Jacobson scored seven of NDSU’s first 13 points. In the days leading up to the tournament, the Fargo Shanley product sounded like a mature veteran. “You just have to go out there and play your game, compete like you have competed all year, you know it’s special, but you can’t treat it like it’s any different game,” Jacobson explained.
Going into the tournament, Alexander told freshmen Jacobson and Paul Miller to play their game just like the previous 29 times the Bison have taken the court since the season tipped off last November. “I just told them to play this game like you played the last 29, don’t change anything, don’t worry about the scoreboard, stick to the things we do.”
With Denver looking to take away Alexander, who put up 28 and 21 points in the two regular season bouts against the Pioneers, Jacobson made them pay for it. It’s something Jacobson noticed early on in the quarterfinal matchup. “They were pretty high pressure, more than usual,” said Jacobson, describing Denver’s defense. “I just felt like I could take those guys off the bounce. They were hugging LA and Paul off the wing and I was able to get some good lanes to the basket.”
Early in the second half, with the Bison trailing 29-23, Jacobson, along with Alexander, sparked a 10-0 run for NDSU that proved the turning point in the game. In the first six minutes of the half, Jacobson chipped in with a pair of layups, splitting several Pioneers defenders on his way to the basket, and added a pair of free throws to preserve the Bison lead when Denver threatened to close the gap. Jacobson would add big free throws down the stretch to keep the game out of reach.
“I really challenged our guys,” said Richman after the Bison struggled to get good looks in the first half. “We were really stagnant, not moving well, we made a couple tweaks here and there, but just our guys locking in and executing what we need to do.” None more so than Jacobson. Of his seven field goals, five came on layups. Another six times, Jacobson drew fouls on Pioneer defenders when attacking the rim, connecting on 8 of 12 free throw attempts.
Jacobson played all 40 minutes for the Bison. “For the kid to be a freshman and deliver like that with Kory [Brown] out and LA out,” said Richman, referring to the foul trouble that kept Brown and Alexander sidelined for key minutes late in the second half. “The kid just relishes in the moment.”