Photo By Nolan P. Schmidt
March is beautiful, isn’t it?
At the beginning of this basketball season, what were you expecting from North Dakota State? With no seniors and several new players on the roster, it could not have been much, right? No one would blame you, I’m sure.
However, that was not the case inside the Bison locker room and it showed as the season wore on. Now, they are in the NCAA Tournament after 73-63 victory over Omaha in the Summit League Tournament championship game.
They embraced their journey and now, it will continue with the program’s fourth appearance in the big dance, all since 2009.
Pacing seemed to be the word of choice in describing the early portions of this contest. North Dakota State’s offense started slow from beyond the arc, but a Jared Samuelson three-pointer turned that tide. After that, the Bison netted four more three-pointers in under a 10-minute span. One of those came from junior Tyson Ward, who had a quick nine points before the second media timeout. Ward has played his best basketball in these three games, scoring 25 points against Oral Roberts on Sunday. His offensive productivity early in this game really perked North Dakota State on that end and allowed the Bison to grab a lead.
The defensive effort did not necessarily translate early in the first half for the Bison. Omaha was shooting a scorching 57 percent from the field through 12 minutes, including a 60 percent mark from long distance. The Mavericks are a veteran-laden team, so their efficiency certainly comes as no surprise, but four Omaha turnovers in that span kept North Dakota State in control.
North Dakota State has been able to limit Mavericks senior star Mitch Hahn in their match-ups this season. He did not attempt a shot until the middle of the second half in Fargo on February 23. Hahn only attempted three shots in the first half of tonight’s game and all were misses. However, one player NDSU has failed to stop is Omaha senior Zach Jackson, who had nine first-half points (on 38 percent shooting, mind you).
Never the less, the Bison were able to go on a 7-0 run before the final media timeout of the half to take a commanding 36-25 lead. While the offense will get the spotlight on that run, the defensive physicality on Jackson forced him to take some tough shots. Whatever North Dakota State lacked defensively in the first eight minutes, they found in the final 12 of the first half. Rotations were perfect, defending screens was flawless and I believe their ability to rotate fresh legs into the game has a lot to do with that. Omaha did not score a field goal in almost seven minutes at the end of the half (6:46).
At halftime, the Bison had a commanding 41-27 lead and were shooting an impressive 48 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. Tyson Ward finished with 11 points while Cam Hunter continued his hot streak, netting three triples in the first frame.
Still, 20 minutes to play, though.
I’d be beating a dead horse by saying North Dakota State has struggled in the second half of games, especially when they have big leads. However, they had cleaned that up in the first two games of this tournament.
Needless to say, the Mavericks made the run many assumed they would to start the second half. Going a 12-2 run in the first five minutes of the half pulled them to within four points. Again, Jackson paced Omaha during that stretch, burying two three-pointers. Luckily, the Bison were able to counter the run with a quick five-point burst from Vinnie Shahid which included a deep three near the end of the shot clock. North Dakota State had pushed the lead back to nine with just over 12 minutes remaining.
Omaha answered with another onslaught, this time going on a 12-0 run over a two-minute span, tying the game at 51 apiece. Again it was Shahid who answered for NDSU, drilling a monster three to regain the lead for the Bison. In all, Shahid went on a 7-0 run by himself (coupled with a Tyson Ward bucket) to help NDSU push the lead to nine with under three minutes remaining.
By sheer force of will, Vinnie Shahid paced the Bison the rest of the way in this one. Burying clinching free throws in the waning seconds to seal an NCAA Tournament berth for North Dakota State. He finished with 22 points and was named the tournament’s MVP. The Bison prevailed by a final of 73-63.
Now, a team everyone gave up on. A team no one saw coming, a team that “needed a year” to find themselves, is dancing.
That’s the beauty of it all, folks. This team is ready right now and they proved it tonight. Anything can happen in March and, more importantly, anything can happen at North Dakota State University.