Photo by Gabrielle K. Hartze
The beauty of March is that it comes down to one game for everything. That is, after all, why they call it March Madness. Things got plenty crazy at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., Tuesday night. When it was all said and done, it was North Dakota State punching their ticket to a second straight NCAA Tournament with a thrilling 57-56 victory over South Dakota State.
“Indescribable,” said freshman A.J. Jacobson on the feeling of going to the Big Dance. Jacobson redshirted last year, but was with the team in Spokane, Wash., where they toppled No. 5 seed Oklahoma in a second round upset. “One of those things where it’s every student athletes’ dream to play in the NCAA March Madness Tournament.”
Like NDSU’s previous two Summit League Tournament championships, this game wasn’t decided until the final seconds. With 8.7 seconds left, Lawrence Alexander went to the free throw line with a chance to extend NDSU’s one-point lead. After Alexander missed the front end of a one-and-one bonus, the Jackrabbits looked disoriented, pausing before bringing the ball up the court. Deondre Parks was forced to attempt a three-point shot from several feet beyond the top of the key. The shot hit the backboard to the left of the rim with two seconds left. When nobody could gather the rebound, the party was on for the Bison.
“When he was coming down, I kind of saw he was out of rhythm at times,” said Alexander of the final play. “I saw it went up and it didn’t hit anything, and the ball bounced to the floor, I just tried to tip it out. Once the buzzer hit it was all celebration from there.” Alexander was named the most valuable player of the tournament, leading the way with his 25 points against the Jackrabbits.
A capacity crowd of 9,033 fans, most wearing blue and yellow, and a national television audience on ESPN2, watched a nail biter that saw the Bison take a 57-49 lead with 2:52 remaining on a pair of Alexander free throws.
The Jackrabbits stormed back to score the next seven points, but it was the Bison storming the court when the clock hit zero and cutting down the nets. “We talked about it, we wanted this stage, we knew our backs were going to be against the wall in a hostile environment,” said NDSU coach Dave Richman. “We handled so many things down the stretch and had past experiences to lean on, and obviously Lawrence delivering big like he did down the stretch.”
The game saw nine ties and eight lead changes. With the teams tied 23–23 going into halftime, consecutive dunks by Cody Larson gave SDSU their biggest lead at 35–31 midway through the second half. The crowd was as loud as it got all night as the momentum appeared to be shifting towards the de facto home team. But it wasn’t enough to faze a focused Bison team. “Their fans did a lot to help them get a little bit of momentum, but we just focused in and dialed in and you have to play like it’s your home gym where you get shots up at every day,” said Jacobson, describing the hostile environment at the Premier Center.
To the chagrin of the partisan crowd, and delight of the several hundred NDSU fans in attendance, with the game up for grabs, it was Alexander responding with big shots. The senior from Peoria, Ill., reminded everyone why he was the league’s player of the year, answering with a trifecta of three pointers to trigger a 20–7 Bison run. The run gave NDSU a 51–42 lead with just over six minutes separating them from a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
It proved too much for the Jackrabbits to overcome. “Today at shoot around I got comfortable with the rims,” explained Alexander on his improved shooting in the title bout after struggling at times from the field earlier in the tournament. “To see my shots go through at the shoot around, I said it’s going to be a good night tonight because I was making my shots. I knew eventually I was going to make a couple shots.”
Alexander finished 8-of-15 from the field, including going 6-of-9 from beyond the three-point line. “Tremendous player, one of the greatest to put on a North Dakota State uniform,” Richman said of his team leader. “He’s a way better kid than he is a player and that’s a big statement.”
The Bison will learn, along with the rest of America, who they’ll face in the NCAA Tournament when it’s announced live on the CBS Selection Show this Sunday at 5 p.m. NDSU does know they’ll play either on Thursday or Friday of next week, with the closest possibility being in Omaha, Neb. “We’re definitely going to come out ready to play, whoever it is,” concluded Alexander. “Once the ball goes up, it’s anybody’s game and it’s on a neutral floor. We got high expectations from last year and hopefully this year we can get to the Sweet 16.”
Recap video courtesy of NDSU Athletics