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Mike McFeely column: Bison turn out to be pretenders

It would have made such a nice story. The underdog North Dakota State men's basketball team, one year from the abyss known as the Division I transition period, winning a North Central Conference title in this farewell season.

It would have made such a nice story. The underdog North Dakota State men's basketball team, one year from the abyss known as the Division I transition period, winning a North Central Conference title in this farewell season. The Bison would have been able to thumb their noses, and perhaps direct a certain finger skyward, at all those schools wishing them "luck" in their future endeavors.

It could have been storybook stuff.

If only South Dakota State had decided to vacate the NCC a year ago.

Because anybody who was fortunate -- or unfortunate -- enough to be in the Bison Sports Arena on Friday night saw the inescapable truth played out on the hardwood floor.

And written in lights on the scoreboard.

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The Bison and the Jackrabbits aren't in the same class.

They have the same conference records, yes, which technically means they are to be treated as equals at this middle stage of the league season. But 6-3 for the Jackrabbits is different than 6-3 for the Bison.

SDSU is the contender. Make that the contender. Or maybe even THE contender. NDSU, it turns out after nine conference weeks, is only a pretender.

The final tally was a 17-point difference, 88-71. But, as they say, it wasn't that close. And it also served to affirm that SDSU's 88-64 victory in Brookings a couple of weeks back wasn't anything resembling a fluke, just in case there were any lingering doubts.

The Jacks are just that much better. Bigger, stronger, deeper and better.

It started in the backcourt, where Andy Moeller and Marquise Richardson had their choice of lanes to the basket. It extended to the front court, where Josh Cerveny and Derrick Schantz scored easy bucket after easy bucket while controlling the boards.

In the meantime, the Jacks played with a defensive intensity the Bison haven't seen this year -- except, perhaps, in Brookings.

None of this is necessarily a surprise. SDSU was the consensus pick to win the conference in their final go-around (the Jacks, too, are headed down the primrose D-I path). But when the Jacks lost three straight NCC games -- No. 1 question we had at about 9 p.m. Friday: How?! -- some other teams, NDSU included, began to fancy themselves as contenders.

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Instead, before nearly 5,000 fans and with a chance to give themselves a much-needed cushion over the Jacks with five conference games remaining, the Bison ended up with their Nikes planted rather firmly to the floor.

That, more than anything else, frustrated Bison coach Tim Miles.

"We came out ready to play. It was two teams with their juices flowing," Miles said. "And then they applied some defensive pressure and got us out of what we were doing. Then we took a couple of bad shots, then we started trying too hard and made a few errors because of that, and then frustration set in."

That frustration peaked -- in the form of standing and staring -- in the waning moments of the first half.

With the Jacks already leading 39-25, the 6-foot-8, 285-pound Cerveny ran the length of the court trailing a play and grabbed an offensive rebound away from two flat-footed Bison players. Cerveny went to the basket, scored a layup and was fouled. He missed the ensuing free throw, but that rebound was snared away from the Bison by Schantz, who scored on the put-back.

The half ended 43-25 with NDSU players running to the locker room dazed and confused.

That sequence led to obvious questions of Miles and senior Ben Nemmers afterward: Are the Bison intimidated by the talented and physical Jackrabbits?

"You're never going to get a competitor to admit that he's intimidated," Miles said. "SDSU is a helluva basketball team which is playing well and they beat us. ... But we'd like to think that we can stand toe-to-toe with them. They're good, but we certainly think we can beat them."

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We'll give Miles a break. What else is a coach going to say?

But anybody who saw the Bison and Jacks play Friday no doubt came away with a differing opinion. It was a night when SDSU slammed the storybook closed on the Bison's final NCC season.

Readers can reach Mike McFeely at

(701) 241-5580 or mmcfeely@forumcomm.com

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