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McFeely: Bison women provide sorely needed basketball joy

NDSU secures second seed in Summit League tournament and with it an automatic invite to the WNIT

Heaven Hamling pic.jpg
North Dakota State guard Heaven Hamling dribbles the ball upcourt at Western Illinois on Saturday, Feb. 25.
Myles Johnson / NDSU Athletics

FARGO — Dave Richman was as dour after North Dakota State's thrilling 71-69 victory over Western Illinois at the Scheels Center on Saturday as any winning coach has ever been.

Local boy Boden Skunberg hit a fallaway jumper at the final horn to beat the Leathernecks, soothing an ugly second-half performance by the Bison and securing third place in the Summit League.

The last point isn't without significance. The third seed in the upcoming conference tournament means NDSU can avoid No. 1 seed and conference undefeated Oral Roberts until the title game, if the Bison were fortunate enough to get that far.

That seems unlikely if you listen to the coach, despite the joy and celebration of the 2,602 fans who erupted in cheer when Skunberg's shot swished through the bucket.

Things went from buzzer beater to buzzkill in a hurry after that.


Skunberg and teammate Grant Nelson were on the podium first for the postgame media interviews and both looked like somebody ran over their puppies. No smiles, no joy. It was clear Richman's locker room talk didn't include any "attaboys" for pulling one out of the fire despite blowing a 16-point lead.

"I'm not so sure after the second half we didn't deserve to lose and that would have been better for us," Richman said when it was his turn, after using a postgame TV interview to apologize to fans and throw a bucket of ice water on the celebration two minutes after the highlight-reel ending.

The coach also described his team as "lackluster," "entitled" and "selfish" among other adjectives.

Give Richman credit for being brutally honest, even if it's to a fault. There would be no lipsticking this pig for the public. There would be no joy allowed in Bisonville.

That will have to be provided by the Bison women's team, which locked up second place in the Summit League with an 82-74 win over Western Illinois in a nearly empty, quiet gym in Macomb. No fanfare or television, just a key victory in the progression of the program.

Playing with a protective mask covering her nose, which was smacked Thursday in a victory at St. Thomas, Heaven Hamling dropped 31 points on the Leathernecks to assure NDSU the second seed in the Summit League tournament. That's the best the Bison have done since moving to Division I nearly 20 years ago.

Coach Jory Collins' team is 18-10 (12-6 Summit). It marks the most wins in a season since 2004-05 when the Bison posted a 26-1 overall record.

NDSU, for the first time in Division I, has a realistic path to the conference championship game in Sioux Falls. It'll play either seventh seed Denver or 10th seed Kansas City in the quarterfinals and, with a victory, either No. 3 seed North Dakota or No. 6 seed Omaha in the semifinals.


None of those teams are unbeatable, as were the South Dakota States and South Dakotas of past years.

It will take an epic upset for anybody other than top seed SDSU to win the conference championship and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament that goes with it — the Jackrabbits play at a high-major level and nobody else in the Summit this season is close — but winning the second seed opened a door of opportunity for the Bison.

No matter how NDSU does in Sioux Falls, even if it had an unexpected loss in the quarterfinals, it will receive an auto-bid to the Women's National Invitational Tournament and can bid to host a first-round game.

The WNIT is the consolation prize for those teams that don't make the 68-team NCAA tournament. SDSU and South Dakota both won WNIT titles, hosting games that filled their arenas.

This Bison team isn't as good as those Jackrabbits and Coyotes teams, but a second-place league finish and the possibility of hosting a postseason game — even if it's in a tournament for 64 teams that would rather be in the other tournament — is a giant stride forward for an NDSU women's program that has been next to irrelevant in Fargo for years.

Nobody will claim the women's team is awakening the echoes of glory days long past, but there's joy to be had in the Bison's newfound success. That seemed important Saturday.

North Dakota State’s Boden Skunberg is surrounded and celebrated by his teammates after scoring a tie braking buzzer beater shot against Western Illinois on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex inside the Scheels Center in Fargo.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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