Photo By Nolan P. Schmidt
“Welcome to March Madness, huh?”
That was the first sentence uttered out of Dave Richman’s mouth after North Dakota State unseated Western Illinois 76-73 in the first Summit League Tournament semifinal game. The Leathernecks were coming off a massive win over top dog South Dakota State in the first round. While the Bison had swept Western Illinois in the regular season, all bets were off this time around. Especially given the momentum the Leathernecks had heading in.
In the early going, it seemed as though NDSU was picking up exactly where they left off from the night before. Halfway through the opening frame, the Bison has netted six triples on six attempts (that’s 100 percent for you math majors). Compare that to 25 percent shooting from deep from the Leathernecks in that same span. With the offense somewhat struggling in the first half of yesterday’s game against Oral Roberts, it came alive in the final 20 minutes.
That consistency remained the same in the first 20 minutes tonight. Much of that is thanks to some tremendous ball movement by the Bison offensively. Making the extra pass for an easier shot has become a staple of this Richman offense of late and it’s paying dividends.
However, when Western Illinois is “on” offensively, they can run up the scoring tally in a hurry. That is why another solid defensive effort was more important for the Bison. The Leathernecks were able to hang around thanks to the Bison offense cooling a bit late in the half. It also helped that they shot over 50 percent from the field. This was due in large part to sophomore guard Kobe Webster, who is an electrifying, yet streaky Summit League scorer. Webster had 17 first-half points. That mark led all scorers at the halfway point.
Surely, it was not the offensive slugfest we saw in the first half of yesterday’s game, but it came close. By half’s end, North Dakota State led 49-40. The Leathernecks shot an impressive 57 percent from the field in the half, but the Bison were better, shooting 60 percent from the field and 71 percent from long range. Vinnie Shahid quietly racked up 11 points, while Deng Geu continued his string of success against Western Illinois with 10 first-half points.
The Bison offense stalled slightly in the second half while the Leathernecks were able to pull ever closer, trimming the Bison lead to three by the first media timeout of the second half. Execution and efficiency in the second half has been an issue for North Dakota State all season and it was no different tonight, to a point. The Bison were able to knock down shots at an efficient rate but were not getting the same looks like in the first half. Western Illinois boosted their defensive intensity a bit, but it was nothing drastic. It seemed that the ball movement we saw in the first half did not carry over early in the second.
Western Illinois had tied the game at 62 apiece with just over 10 minutes left in the contest. North Dakota State continued to make timely offensive plays despite the Leathernecks capturing their first lead since early in the first half with under 10 to go. By the under eight media timeout, NDSU still had a one-point lead. With the help of true freshman Sam Griesel, the Bison were able to find an offensive rhythm after that timeout. Grisel finished with 20 points, a team-high and further cemented himself as the future of this program. He netted two enormous three-pointers down the stretch to push the Bison lead to five by the under four media timeout.
“My teammates have told me all year to shoot. I’ve struggled with confidence and coach has been working with me a lot on that part of my game. My teammates helped me out and give me the confidence to be able to make those shots down the stretch,” Griesel said after the game.
Both teams were at an impasse for pretty much the remainder of the game. Kobe Webster scored to make it a three-point game with under a minute remaining. The Leathernecks forced a stop on the other end and had a chance to tie the game up at 76 with 19 seconds left. Everyone inside the Denny Sanford Premier Center knew Webster was taking the shot. He got switched off onto Griesel and missed the three to tie thanks to a great contest from Griesel. Western Illinois grabbed the rebound and kicked it back to C.J. Duff, who missed a three as well. Game. Bison.
“It was kind of a complete opposite of yesterday from the standpoint of a tale of two different halves. I’m really really proud of our guys, just the way they hung in there and battled,” Dave Richman said after the game. “I think you saw a young man we’ve been really excited about for a long time, Sam Griesel, really grow up tonight. He has always understood the moment.”
It was by no means the prettiest second half performance, but it was a gritty one.
“We’ve understood that second halves have not been our strongest. We know that is something we got to clean up, that is something we have to grow in going forward,” said junior guard Vinnie Shahid.
In the end, Sam Griesel’s poise in the late stages that paced North Dakota State to a Summit League Tournament Championship game. To say that about a true freshman, playing in his second tournament game, is truly remarkable.
“This isn’t about me, but I’ve put a lot of time into that kid and we swing and missed in the fall and came right back at him in the spring and it’s really paid off. He’s just a really great kid and I just think that we’re all seeing the surface being scratched. He has bought into the weight room more than I ever thought he would,” said Richman. “Sam wants to be really good and he’s going to be really good. I’m really proud of that kid for staying the course, he missed 10 or 11 games with the injury, six weeks, came back and threw him into the lineup a couple games later and you can see how talented he is. You can go back to a lot of games where he senses the moment and makes a whole bunch of winning plays.”
Now, it’s one more opponent. One more win and this team is dancing. It says a lot about this Bison squad, who could have just as easily floundered after their gauntlet of a non-conference schedule. Everyone, myself included, was looking forward to next season, where this team will surely be a preseason favorite to win the league.
Now, they are one win from proving a lot of people wrong and making this season historic.