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McFeely: Bison break their mold and win with flair, giving fans an entertaining show in process

These Bison are a mystery, even at 9-4 in the Summit League (17-8 overall) and winners of six of their last seven. Yet, there's something missing. Monday's victory against South Dakota was notable because the Bison switched their way of doing things and it worked.

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North Dakota State's Grant Nelson goes up for two against South Dakota during their basketball game Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

FARGO — The Sanford Health Athletic Complex was dead Monday night, the 1,300 or so fans who ventured forth for a makeup game on a Monday night as quiet and disgruntled as they've been all season. North Dakota State's men's basketball team was down 17 points to South Dakota and the Bison offense was doing its best Jimmy Hoffa impression.

Gone without a trace.

It's become an unfortunately common occurence NDSU has mostly been able to overcome.

These Bison are a mystery, even at 9-4 in the Summit League (17-8 overall) and winners of six of their last seven. The conference tournament's second seed behind South Dakota State is in NDSU's control. It's a gritty crew that finds a way to win. Yet, there's something missing.

That was clearly true again Monday. NDSU was getting whipped at home.

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Desperate times call for desperate measures, which might explain on this night why Bison coach Dave Richman decided finally to change up things for the home team.

Reminiscent of NDSU's Summit League tournament championship game loss to Oral Roberts last March, Richman threw his rigidity to the breeze when the deficit became deep enough. The Bison set aside their conservative, clock-draining offense and their conservative, protective defense and began to be the aggressor.

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North Dakota State basketball players Maleeck Harden-Hayes, from right, Grant Nelson, Sam Griesel and Rocky Kreuser celebrate defeating South Dakota on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

The offense pushed tempo and opened the floor. The defense pressured the Coyotes all over the court.

And wouldn't you know it? The next thing happening was freshman Grant Nelson getting isolation matchups USD couldn't hope to guard, leading to drives to the basket and easy layups. Rocky Kreuser hit a big jumper. And Jarius Cook, NDSU's best outside shooter who at times struggles because the Bison offense slogs too often, hit two massive 3-pointers that he caught and shot in rhythm.

USD, meanwhile, looked jarred by the Bison's newfound defensive aggressiveness.

The Coyotes clearly had their pulses racing with NDSU hounding them, as witnessed by a turnover by Tasos Kamateros. He'd slipped behind the NDSU defense and caught a long pass that should've led to an easy dunk. There was nobody within 15 feet of him when he received the ball at the 3-point stripe. One problem: He forgot to dribble before dunking. Traveling. Bison ball.

Richman's decision to get aggressive, finally, changed the tilt of the game and might've salvaged NDSU's late-season prospects. If the Bison win their final five games, they'll be the league tournament's second seed.

With 8:48 left in the second half, USD led 59-42. With 3:01 left, Cook hit the second of his 3-pointers to give NDSU a 68-65 lead.

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Shock and awe.

There was still some give and take to the finish line, including Sam Griesel's game-winner with 3 seconds left, but the Bison won 76-74 in their most entertaining home game of the season. There was no reason for Richman to be somber after this one.

The atmosphere inside the SHAC was, by far, the best it's been. The 1,343 fans were out of their seats, sounding like 5,343. It was the most exciting, fan-friendly stretch of basketball in north Fargo in quite some time. You never know, but give the customers more of the frenetic energy seen on Monday night and the 1,800 average attendance might morph into 2,800.

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North Dakota State's Rocky Kreuser celebrates a basket against South Dakota during their basketball game Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Nelson, the 6-foot-11 sophomore from Devils Lake, N.D., was spectacular in the free-flowing stretch. He had 14 points in 2-1/2 minutes, a stunning display of athletic dominance. Is there a way to tap that more than once a season? To let the athletes be athletes?

"We tried to change some things up offensively to get some quick looks and obviously that got him going and then the rest is history," Richman said.

More, please.

The coach was asked after the game how he could reveal that version of Nelson more often.

"Shoot, sometimes I wonder if it's me," Richman said. "They used to say Dean Smith was the only guy who could hold Michael Jordan down."

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Richman's decision to shed his conservative skin was reminiscent of last year's Summit League championship when the Bison, down by 25 at halftime to Oral Roberts, erased the deficit to tie the game 72-72 before losing 75-72. NDSU cranked up the defensive pressure in that game and let 'er rip offensively, staggering the Golden Hurricanes.

So why not do it more often? Richman is stubborn and won't change his overall philosophy, which is based on discipline and control. But would letting his players free-wheel on offense and play full-court defense more often end the long stagnant periods NDSU seems to go through every game?

Richman put the responsibility for going stagnant on his three seniors — Kreuser, Griesel and Tyree Eady.

"I'm trying to pull back. This is their team. I'm trying to let them have the ownership and initiate those things. Is there something we can do as a staff here and there? Absolutely," Richman said. "But we're never going to get to that best version of ourselves if they don't own those moments, if they don't understand those moments. Sometimes as a leader you're pushing, sometimes you're pulling back. I just want those guys to understand, they have to own those things."

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North Dakota State's Sam Griesel shoots over South Dakota’s Boogie Anderson during their basketball game Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

There's no questioning Richman's resume at NDSU. He's won three Summit League tournaments and played in two NCAA tournaments (a third appearance was canceled by COVID). The Bison won a First Four game in 2019 and made a solid appearance on national television against mighty Duke. His style wins.

"It's about finding a way and our guys found a way. Sometimes obviously it hasn't been pretty but we've been able to find a way and get Ws and in February we'll take every W we can get," Richman said.

Fair enough. But there's nothing to say throwing a change-up at the opponent is against the rules, even in basketball. The fans sure seemed to enjoy it and, judging by the celebration on the court after the final horn, so did the players.

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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