It was only 11 days ago in Tulsa, Okla., that Oral Roberts handled North Dakota State 74–58 in the regular season finale. What a difference a change of scenery makes. In Sioux Falls, S.D., it was the Bison coming up big with a late game defensive stop to advance to Tuesday night’s Summit League championship for the third straight year with a 60–56 victory over the Golden Eagles.
NDSU will face South Dakota State, who beat South Dakota 78–65 in the other semifinal in a game that was much more lopsided than the final score.
Obi Emegano torched the Bison for a career-high 34 points on February 26. This time around, while he scored 25 points, it took the all-conference player 24 shots to get there. “That’s a tough group, they battled us tooth and nail all the way down to the wire,” said Bison coach Dave Richman.
Richman has NDSU back in the league’s marquee event in his first year at the helm despite the Bison being picked fifth in the league preseason poll. Not many expected them to contend for another trip to the NCAA Tournament with the loss of three starters and other key reserves. “Really proud of our guys, nothing has been handed to them all year and we responded.”
The game featured the league’s top two scorers in Emegano and Lawrence Alexander. Alexander led the league in scoring with his 20.8 points per game. Emegano was right behind him. But it was Alexander’s defense that stole the show and sealed the deal for the Bison. With NDSU leading 58–56 with 15 seconds left, the Golden Eagles decided to go for the win on a three-point attempt. Squaring up from the left corner in front of his own bench, it looked like Bobby Word had a clean look on a three that would have put ORU up a point in the closing moments.
As Word squared up, Alexander seemingly came out of nowhere to make an incredible play, blocking the shot and gathering the loose ball that ensued. Alexander was then fouled and converted both free throw attempts for the final margin. “All credit goes to A.J. [Jacobson], he challenged me before the game saying I couldn’t play defense so that block was for him,” kidded a smiling Alexander. “I knew it was going to Obi or Word, I kind of eavesdropped on their coach when he yelled, ‘Pop, Bobby, pop Bobby,’ so I knew he was coming at me.”
Alexander’s heady play to hear ORU coach Scott Sutton directing Word to pop out, and then getting to the shooter, allowed him the split second he needed on the decisive play. “I thought Bobby was going to get a clean look and it seemed like he came out of nowhere and blocked the shot,” said Sutton, who explained that coming out of their last timeout, the plan was to get the ball to Word, anticipating the Bison keying on Emegano.
“We actually drew a play up, I wanted to see if we could get a clean look from three. We drew a play up for Obi, they defended it well,” began Sutton. When that play didn’t materialize, ORU called another timeout. “I think we called another timeout, drew up another play for Obi and he didn’t get a very clean look and it went out of bounds on them.” It was at that point Sutton called for Word to pop out. “I thought they would figure we were going to Obi and I thought Bobby could get a clean look. It looked like he was going to get a great look, and Alexander made a great defensive play.”
It was the culmination of a seesaw affair with the teams trading baskets down the stretch. ORU threatened to tie the game or take the lead several times only to have NDSU respond with clutch makes on the offensive end. “We get it tied a couple times and we just couldn’t come up with defensive stops,” said Sutton.
With 3:16 left and the Bison up 54–52, Emegano hit a pair of free throws to tie the game at 54. On the following possession, Alexander drove the lane and hit a leaning jumper from four feet giving the Bison a 56–54 lead. Again, Emegano would tie it with a pair of free throws after Kory Brown was whistled for a block some 25 feet from the rim. The Bison answered, though, with Jacobson splitting the defense and finishing with a nifty layup for a 58–56 lead with 1:17 remaining. This back and forth set the stage for Alexander’s late game heroics.
NDSU outscored ORU 36–24 in the paint. “I think the biggest difference, the biggest reason why we weren’t able to win this game, was our inability to keep those guys out of the paint,” Sutton said.
Standing between the Bison and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament are the Jackrabbits. In two tournament games, SDSU has been nothing short of dominant. While the rivals split their season series with each team winning at home, NDSU will need to hit another gear to topple the tournament’s top seed in front of a heavily partisan crowd expected to be near 10,000 people. “We’ve been preaching all year there’s room for improvement,” concluded Alexander. “I think we still got another gear in us. Tomorrow is another dogfight, I think we’ve got enough in us for another win.”