Grand Forks, N.D.
It was like the old Bison-Sioux days in terms of atmosphere Saturday, with a near-full basketball arena screaming their lungs raw with every big play by the University of North Dakota against its rival North Dakota State. The Betty Engelstad Sioux Center was rocking. Sorta fun.
Marlon Stewart was the show for the team now called the Fighting Hawks, pouring in 35 points on a variety of drives, stop-and-pops and even a H-O-R-S-E layup on which he went behind his back before making a driving layup. It wasn't as good as the similar bucket NDSU's Tyson Ward made a few minutes later, adding a teardrop finger-roll to the behind-the-back trick, but it was pretty good. Sorta fun.
The game came down to the last second, literally, decided only when Stewart broke an oh-fer night behind the 3-point stripe and swished a bomb from the right wing with .9 of a second remaining to give UND a 71-68 victory. Poetic justice, given his unstoppable performance. Sorta fun.
Unless you're NDSU, of course.
On a seven-game winning streak thanks to tightly efficient offense and the usual gritty defense, hallmarks of Dave Richman-coached teams, the Bison on this night were particularly sloppy in the first half and went cold as last Wednesday during stretches of the second half. There were chances to put away the Fighting Hawks, but the Bison missed them.
That and the fact they couldn't find a way in 40 minutes to stop Stewart. Tyson Ward, Vinnie Shahid, Cameron Hunter and Jared Samuelson all took their chances at various times. All were victimized to varying degrees. Maybe a double-team would've done the trick, but NDSU never went that route.
Richman took responsibility.
"A bunch of that is on me. Tip of the cap to Marlon, I thought he was terrific. But I need to do a better job of putting our guys in position. When a guy goes on a run like that, we have to make some adjustments," the coach said.
The Bison got 24 points from Ward, which is the norm. Shahid, the point guard who makes everything happen, had a hard-fought 14 and never really carried the Bison like he usually does in big spots. Some of that credit goes to Stewart, who was engaged defensively almost as much as he was offensively.
"Marlon really had it going in a lot of ways," UND coach Paul Sather said. "I thought he was really good defensively. I thought the job he did defensively was outstanding. That's what we needed first and foremost. ... Tonight he really set a great tone defensively. that's what kept us in it. That's what allowed us to stay with them."
While not a mortal blow to NDSU's chances of winning the Summit League regular-season championship and getting the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament in Sioux Falls -- which carries important perks -- the Bison now have to win their last two games and hope the standings hold as they are.
If the Bison beat South Dakota State and Omaha next week in Fargo, they will finish 13-3 in the league and share the regular-season title with the Jackrabbits. If South Dakota finishes in third place, NDSU would get the top seed for the tournament by virtue of sweeping the Coyotes. Bottom line: Beating UND would've made things easier.
"Everything we want is still in front of us, if my math is right," Richman said. "If we take care of business at home and get those two we have the tiebreaker as it sits now. The important thing is for us to learn and we obviously have a big one on Thursday."
While NDSU is assured of finishing no worse than second place in the regular season, a top seed and a third-place finish by USD would mean the Bison wouldn't face the Jackrabbits or the Coyotes until the title game in Sioux Falls.
That is, if the Bison get to the championship game.
If UND's win showed anything, it was that the margin for error is not all that wide in the Summit League. The Bison are a strong, senior-led team. Even with that, they are not good enough to not play well and still beat a middle-of-the-pack team like UND. The conference tournament, even with a first or second seed, is going to be the usual dogfight no matter who NDSU plays.
That's the way the Hawks have to look at it, too.
"Last year when we played Omaha we showed that, too," Stewart said, referring to a 79-76 loss to the second-seeded Mavericks in the first round last year. "That was another game that came down to the wire that we could've got. But, you know, just played hard and the game takes care of itself."
The Summit League tournament, as has been evident for weeks, is going to be wild. If Stewart can go off for 35 down there, the Hawks could knock off somebody in this up and down season.
For the Bison, they might take Sather's words to heart. When asked what a victory like the one over the Bison might do for his team as it looks ahead to the league tournament, he went the even-keel route.
"Don't get too high and don't get too low. Let's recover and get ready for Monday practice. ... Let's think about our preparation and what we have to do," Sather said. "You can make mistakes getting ahead of yourself. You're usually never as good as you think and you're usually never as bad as you think."