Photo By Dave Eggen/Inertia
In the snowy haze of a late Washington afternoon, a dream was deferred because of a fumble that never was. That dream deferred did not dry up or fester. No, it exploded into eight national championships over the next nine seasons. North Dakota State used that crushing loss in December 2010 at the hands of Eastern Washington as a catalyst.
Fast forward a decade or so. On a Tuesday night of an unseasonably warm day in early March 2021, another NDSU team was on the cusp as the Bison rallied from a 25-point halftime deficit, down a single point in the game’s closing seconds, with a chance to beat Oral Roberts and clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
It wasn’t to be.
Trailing by that single point, Sam Griesel positioned himself inside the circle only feet from the hoop for a potential game-winner. Griesel was fouled. The only problem, like that snowy day in Washington, was that the official standing with a clear view two yards away never called the foul. While photo evidence shows Griesel being mauled by ORU’s Francis Lacis, an unwhistled foul deferred, at least temporarily, NDSU’s dreams of making noise in March.
What happens to a hoops dream deferred? There were only two seniors on NDSU’s roster this winter. The only one taking part in the annual Senior Day ceremony was Tyler Witz. That other senior, Rocky Kreuser, is one of the best players in the Summit League. Kreuser was named to the all-league first team this year, is eligible to return next year, and by all reports, intends to do so. The 6-foot-10 forward from White Bear Lake, Minn., took over the Summit League Tournament’s championship game in the second half, finishing with 34 points.
In addition to Kreuser, the Bison return all four starters that took the court at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls. This includes Sam Griesel, who made the All-Summit League second team, and freshman Grant Nelson, who was named the league’s Sixth Man of the Year. Don’t forget about Tyree Eady, Jarius Cook and Maleeck Harden-Hayes, who all averaged over nine points per game.
Beyond the talent, seeing past the points and rebounds, this team has the intangibles stacked heavily in its favor. Don’t get fixated on statistics like the fact the Bison have over 99 percent of their scoring and 98.7 percent of their rebounding coming back. Focus on this. NDSU is led by the best coach, and coaching staff, in the Summit League. They have a hard-working roster that’s been together for several years. They have that “it” factor, the great unquantifiable that allows a team to erase a 25-point halftime deficit when most teams would have packed it in and chalked up things to a bad night. Not these guys. What they did takes the sort of heart and poise that can propel a team to bigger things. We’re talking the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament big things. It takes experience and leadership. It takes a certain sort of resiliency and intestinal fortitude. It takes a darn good basketball team, and program.
It takes belief. “Really thrilled with the leadership of this group,” said NDSU head coach Dave Richman after a 79-75 win over South Dakota in the tournament semifinals. “I tell everybody who is listening right now what I just told these guys … we have simply jumped on the back of three young men [Kreuser, Griesel and Eady] who exemplify everything that I want this program to be about.”
Now, they have that bad taste of falling agonizingly short to fuel their dream deferred, only if that dream is put off by a year. While the first ball hasn’t even tipped this March, for this group of Bison, all eyes are on next March. A lesson learned, a building block, absolutely. A lesson and building block that hurts like hell, but one that can serve as a catalyst. It’s a mistake to overlook or downplay how a game like this can fuel a competitor. Just ask the rest of the FCS in the wake of NDSU’s loss at Eastern Washington some 11 years ago.
Players and coaches often mention that game, and fans still talk about it as a key reference point for what followed. It was the prelude. I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot, one-year from right now, how a second-half rally in March 2021 in Sioux Falls served as a rocket-fueled catapult for a team entering the 2022 NCAA Tournament with the potential to take down some big boys. Who knows, Bison fans could even find themselves making a familiar drive down I-29 as one of the sites for next year’s tournament’s First and Second Rounds is Fort Worth, Texas, at Dickies Arena, just a long three-pointer from friendly haunts in Frisco and Plano. We could have a decided home-court advantage in a place Bison fans affectionately call “Fargo South.”
“It’s hard to figure it out now, but somewhere down the road, we’re going to be better for this,” said Richman after losing to ORU. While NDSU’s hoops dream may be deferred until next March, do not expect it to dry up, fester or sag. Expect it to explode.
Everybody up for the tip-off, the March is on.