It was déjà vu all over again between North Dakota State and Denver in the Summit League quarterfinals Saturday night in Sioux Falls’ new Denny Sanford Premier Center. Well, not quite. While NDSU ultimately pulled away for a 61-50 win to advance to play the winner of the IUPUI and Oral Roberts’ game in the tournament semifinals Monday night, early on, it looked like the teams were heading for another photo finish like their two overtime meetings in the regular season. The Bison won both those games.
The teams traded the lead nine times in the first half, and were tied four times, with the Pioneers up 27-23 going into half. NDSU struggled to find their rhythm offensively the first twenty minutes, shooting 7-of-22 from the field. “I thought our body and ball movement in the first half wasn’t very good,” said Bison head coach Dave Richman.
That changed in the second half. The NDSU game plan coming out of the locker room: attack the rim, and attack it hard. NDSU opened the half on a 10-2 run, forging a 33-29 lead. The Bison never looked back, keeping the lead the rest of the game. Many of their baskets came after drives to the rim, including a pair by Lawrence Alexander and A.J. Jacobson that started opening things up for NDSU.
“We really challenged our guys. We made a couple tweaks here and there, but it was just our guys locking in and executing what we needed to do,” explained Richman, who was named the Summit League Coach of the Year earlier in the week after guiding NDSU to a share of the conference championship in his first year as head coach.
In a first half where the Bison struggled to get to the rim, they showed shades of last year’s squad with a string of highlight reel slam dunks throughout the second half. Penetrating the paint, Alexander found Chris Kading cutting baseline towards the basket for a dunk reminiscent of TrayVonn Wright to give the Bison their first double-digit lead at 48-38 with 8:31 left in the game. With 1:33 remaining, on a similar play, Alexander found Carlin Dupree slashing to the rim for a monster dunk that was game’s exclamation point. “We just attacked. We felt we settled for jump shots in the first half. In the second half, we said ‘Get in there, play off two feet,’ and we got the results we wanted,” said Alexander.
On the other side, NDSU had a plan defensively as well – control the Pioneers sharp shooters. The Bison held the Pioneers to a season low 6.7 percent from three-point range, nearly 32 percent below their season average. Denver hit only one of 15 shots from beyond the arch. “Control and close out was our key against them,” said Richman. Denver connected for seven three’s in each prior contest against NDSU. “That was where I was very pleased, to hold them to 1-for-15 and under 36 percent is pretty remarkable.”
The Bison performance was all the more impressive, considering they did much of it in the latter stages of the second half with Alexander and Kory Brown on the bench in foul trouble. The Pioneers kept Alexander, the Summit League Player of the Year, to 12 points. “I just went right at our guys in the huddle. There have been plenty of times No. 12 picked us up, and it was time for some other guys to pick us up,” Richman said.
Denver took their chances on shutting down Alexander and forcing someone else to beat them. That someone else turned out to be Jacobson. The freshman from Fargo Shanley High School scored a career-high 23 points in his tournament debut. “He was only on the bench for what, five minutes, and it felt like the whole game,” Jacobson said of Alexander. Jacobson finished 7-of-10 from the field and added another 8 points from the free throw line. “It’s really important to maintain a lead when your leading scorer is on the bench so when he can get back in he can push us to the finish line.”
After being hampered with a leg injury and poor shooting the first few weeks of the season, Jacobson has emerged into an offensive weapon for the Bison that can take defenses away from focusing too much on Alexander. “I don’t think we can talk enough about the year he’s had,” Richman said. Jacobson was the only freshman in the league to make the all-newercomer team, making him the de facto Summit League freshman player of the year. “The mental toughness that takes to respond from all those things, I don’t think we can measure that and the kid just relishes in the moment.”