FARGO — The ending was more like a Summit League battle in the middle of February. North Dakota State and Tarleton State played a men’s basketball grinder that went down to the last minute with free throws, questionable calls and a one-point game at the buzzer.

Non-conference doesn’t mean non-competitive and when it comes to five guys playing in-your-face defense, the Bison found their match in the Division I newbie from Texas.

“They were a tough, physical team,” said Bison forward Rocky Kreuser. “They get up in your grill and make you uncomfortable on offense.”

Kreuser’s two free throws with 7.9 seconds were the difference in a 54-53 win at Scheels Center at Sanford Health Athletic Complex. Kreuser was making a reverse spin when a block was called on Tarleton.

After Kreuser's free throws, NDSU guard Tyree Eady stood his ground and Tarleton’s Montre Gipson lost the handle on his way up for the shot. It ended a game where three Texans played all 40 minutes, Gipson sat for 33 seconds and starter Shakur Daniel would have played all 40 minutes had he not fouled out.

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“After the first eight minutes, I was wondering if they were going to sub guys out and they kept going and going,” Kreuser said. “Absolutely incredible to be in that kind of shape and mentally tough to stay in the game that long.”

The Bison needed all 40 minutes. Their first lead didn’t come until 6:38 remained in the game on Andrew Kallman’s jumper, which made it 43-42. Later, a 3-pointer from Jarius Cook in the corner made it a five-point advantage.

That didn’t last. A minor two-minute scoreless spell gave the Texans enough time to tie it at 49 with 2½ minutes remaining. Two free throws from Javontae Hopkins gave the Texans a 53-52 advantage at 1:19.

The teams traded misses, Eady for NDSU and a Grant Nelson block of a Tarleton shot on the other end. After a time out, the Bison went to their veteran Kreuser.

“Not making shots is not pretty but what was pretty was a one-point victory,” said Bison head coach Dave Richman.

Tarleton, based in Stephenville located southwest of Dallas, is in the beginning stages of reclassifying from NCAA Division II having left the Lone Star Conference after the 2020 season. The Texans were accepted into the Western Athletic Conference, which has 13 teams for basketball.

They have a “name” coach in Billy Gillespie, once the head coach at Texas A&M, Kentucky and Texas Tech. There’s no lack of scheduling the big boys of college basketball, either. The Texans are at Michigan on Wednesday and at top-ranked Gonzaga the following Monday. They’ve already played at Stanford (a 62-50 loss) and at Kansas (an 88-62 defeat).

It was obvious from the get-go what Gillespie hangs his hat on with this team: full-court man-to-man defense with five players between 5-11 and 6-6 who are listed as guards.

It took until the final minute before the Bison solved it in the first half, and that was all Nelson. A stretch of 12 straight NDSU missed shots had Tarleton with a 26-15 lead with 1:41 remaining.

Nelson ended the scoring drought with a 3-pointer. He followed that with a bucket and another trey near the halftime buzzer and the Texans’ lead was down to 26-23 at the break. Before Nelson’s outburst, the Bison were shooting 26%.

The prior three games weren’t sharp either: 38% in a win against Cal Poly, 36% in a loss at UNLV and 26% at Arizona. NDSU finished 17 of 46 against Tarleton for 37%

Guard Dezmond McKinney, who started three of NDSU’s first four games, did not play in what Richman said “certain standards we need to live up to and when you don’t live up to those there are learning experiences.”

He’ll return for the next game, Richman said. Meanwhile, guard Sam Griesel was on the bench in street warmups. Griesel had surgery during NDSU’s West Coast trip. Richman did not want to get into specifics of the ailment.

“It’s going to be more of week by week than day by day,” Richman said. “That Thursday night was one of the scariest nights of my life. I can’t wait until Sam Griesel is back on the court but more than that I’m excited to see Sam every day based on what we went through a couple Thursdays ago.”

TSU (1-3): Daniel 1-7 0-0 2, Hicks 4-11 7-8 15, Bogues 3-7 0-0 6, Small 5-15 0-0 12, Gipson 5-13 0-0 11, Hopkins 1-1 3-3 5, McDavid 1-1 0-0 2. Totals: 20-55 10-11 53.

NDSU (2-2): Nelson 4-7 1-2 11, Kreuser 3-9 4-4 12, Guy 2-2 0-0 6, Eady 0-6 0-0 0, Cook 6-12 0-0 17, Kallman 1-2 2-2 4, Skunberg 1-6 0-0 3, Morgan 0-0 0-0 0, Harden-Hayes 0-2 1-3 1. Totals: 17-46 8-11 54.

Halftime: TSU 26, NDSU 23. Total fouls: TSU 17, NDSU 10. Fouled out: Daniel. Rebounds: TSU 32 (Small 7); NDSU 33 (Nelson, Kreuser 8). 3-point goals: TSU 3-16 (Hicks 0-2, Bogues 0-1, Small 2-6, Gipson 1-6, Daniel 0-1); NDSU 12-31 (Nelson 2-5, Kreuser 2-5, Guy 2-2, Eady 0-4, Cook 5-10, Kallman 0-1, Skunberg 1-3, Harden-Hayes 0-1). Assists: TSU 6 (Daniel 3); NDSU 13 (Guy, Eady 4). Turnovers: TSU 6 (Small 3); NDSU 13 (Eady 4).