North Dakota State was the last team to play in the Summit League Tournament. A regular season conference championship and No. 1 seed gave NDSU a bye into the tournament’s semifinal round against Denver. It was worth the wait. The Bison showed everyone in attendance at Sioux Falls Arena why they’re the favorite to win the tournament and advance to the NCAA Tournament. NDSU dominated Denver in their semifinal matchup, building a 42–15 halftime lead on the way to an 83–48 statement victory.
“That’s pretty complete right there,” said Bison Head Coach Saul Phillips. “I don’t think we can play much sharper than we played. It’s going to be hard to top the crispness we played with.”
NDSU controlled the opening tipoff and everything through the final horn. On the game’s opening possession, TrayVonn Wright added to his impressive reel of highlight dunks. After a Marshall Bjorklund’s shot bounced high off the rim, Wright grabbed the rebound mid-air with one hand and brought the heavy partisan Bison crowd to its feet with a monster dunk. “I think TrayVonn made the opening statement tonight,” Phillips said. “That was a pretty emphatic start and we didn’t let off the gas pedal all night.”
The Bison, indeed, didn’t look back. NDSU controlled things on both sides of the ball in the first half. Offensively, the Bison were a red-hot, shooting 73.9 percent from the field, going 17-for-23 on field goals and 5-for-7 from behind the three-point arch in the opening half. NDSU was paced by Summit League Player of the Year, Taylor Braun, who had 18 first half points, shooting a perfect 6-for-6 from the field, including nailing all four of his three-point attempts. “I was hitting everything I threw up there. Just seeing the first couple go in made me a lot more comfortable,” said Braun. “There are so many ways we can attack teams. We can ride the hot hand and I was feeling it in the first half.”
The Pioneers had no answer for Braun, who finished with a game-high 28 points on only nine shots. “They were playing well on all levels, you have to give them credit,” said Pioneer Head Coach Joe Scott in describing Braun’s performance. “Braun, he’s the (Summit League) player of the year. He played like it tonight.” Phillips lauded the performance turned in by his alpha-dog. “He oozed swagger. He was the alpha dog from the moment he stepped on the court. He was the same guy who stood up here last year and said we’re coming back and we’re going to win it.”
Defensively, NDSU clamped down on Denver’s shooters, who torched the Bison for 15 three-pointers in their March 1 matchup at the Bison Sports Arena. Tonight was a much different story. The Pioneers were 1-for-13 on three point attempts. “Here’s the game right here, last time we played them they had 15 three’s, there’s your difference,” Phillips said. The Bison came into the game with a goal of making Denver’s shooters feel claustrophobic. It worked. “Just chasing them off the line and contest, get a hand up, not allow them to set their feet and knock them down,” explained Wright. Wright finished with 11 points and was one rebound short of a double-double. “Make them feel claustrophobic on offense; that was the goal.”
The NDSU victory sets up a championship matchup Tuesday night against the winner of the other semifinal between South Dakota State and Indiana Ft. Wayne. The Bison came agonizingly close to an NCAA Tournament appearance last season before falling in the championship game 73 – 67 to SDSU. But this is a different year, and the Bison are banking on a different result. “We’ve tried to use it in a positive way, it helps us play harder, we came so close and had to deal with those feelings after the game,” said Braun, pausing, before adding, “We’re doing everything we can not to feel that again.” The game is televised nationally on ESPN2 with an 8:30 tipoff.