As it turned out, trailing at the half was right where North Dakota State wanted to be.
For the second consecutive game against South Dakota, the Bison were able to turn a half deficit into a crucial win, the most recent sending them to the Summit League Tournament final. NDSU’s 79-75 win over the Coyotes in the semifinal locked in a third straight appearance for the Bison in the title game.
The game, however, still seemed in the balance late.
USD led by nine with seven minutes left until senior Rocky Kreuser and junior Sam Griesel carried the Bison down the stretch to overturn the deficit and punch NDSU’s ticket to its third straight final in Sioux Falls. Griesel — who scored 16 points and went 6-8 from the free throw line — talked about the team’s second half performance in the postgame press conference.
“We focused on getting downhill and getting to the free throw line, and when we got in the paint, just being patient and playing with poise” the junior forward said. “Those two words — patience and poise — have been staples for us this season.”
Patience may carry the most weight.
No doubt, it does for the greater narrative of this NDSU season. The Bison are one of the few teams that can actually hang a fully-legitimate conference tournament banner from the ultimately ill-fated 2019-20 season. The team clinched the Summit’s bid to the NCAA Tournament two days before the sport was shut down due to the pandemic, and a veteran team now finds itself with an opportunity to get back what it lost a year ago.
That includes players in Griesel, Kreuser and junior guard Tyree Eady who all played parts in NDSU’s two-game stay in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Bison coach Dave Richman talked about the role those three have played on Monday night, and throughout the season, after the game.
“I’ll tell everyone listening what I told these guys in the locker room: I’m just really thrilled. We have simply jumped on the back of three young men that exemplify everything I want this program to be about,” he said.
A win Tuesday night would mark just the fourth time a team has won three consecutive league tournaments in Summit history, and first since NDSU halted rival South Dakota State’s winning run from 2015-18. Standing in their way is a program that itself has pulled the feat: Oral Roberts.
The Golden Eagles finished off their own three-year run in 2008, and have not been back to the NCAA Tournament since. In fact, it’s their first title game appearance since 2011, and was made possible due to a dramatic, buzzer beating tip-in by Kevin Obanor to eliminate the top-seeded Jacks.
“I was just staying ready, the first half I was in foul trouble, and I was just trying to be tough and do the next right thing regardless of the circumstances,” the senior forward said after the game. “The opportunity went, and I just went for it and put it back in the hole.”
ORU now gets to go for it with league POY Max Abmas (18 points, 10 assists in the semifinal) and a roster that has given big contributions throughout the run in Sioux Falls. In the quarterfinal it was 18 points from redshirt sophomore forward DeShang Weaver, a personal high since returning from a 2019-20 season lost to injury. And against the Jacks, it was a career-high 22 points from Kareem Thompson, whose long range game (4-6 3FG) was critical in keeping SDSU at bay.
That represents a tall mountain for NDSU to climb, but one that Griesel, Kreuser and Eady have climbed before. Kreuser (15.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG) may well be the Summit’s most dominant front court player, while Griesel and Eady give Richman another two big, reliable scorers on the wings.
The teams split their regular season series, creating a high stakes rubber match. Someone’s patience is going to pay off, and may well be the team that has the most poise Tuesday night in the Pentagon.