One more: Jacks can clinch Summit against North Dakota State

Landon Dierks, Sports Editor

By way of a win this past Sunday afternoon, the South Dakota State men’s basketball program did what many thought it could not just months ago: win a share of the Summit League regular season title.

Now, one game stands between the Jackrabbits and an outright conference championship.

Sunday’s 85-80 win over the University of South Dakota secured the Jacks at least a share of the league crown, but Thursday’s contest is equally as important. South Dakota State (22-8, 13-2 Summit) travels to Fargo, North Dakota, for a high-stakes season finale with North Dakota State (20-8, 11-3 Summit). If the Jackrabbits win, they claim the Summit League outright for the third straight season.

“Obviously it’s going to be a heck of an environment,” SDSU head coach Eric Henderson said after Sunday’s rivalry win. “They’re a great basketball team and we have a good basketball team. They’re going to have a great crowd and our guys are excited for the moment, excited for the challenge.”

Should the Bison defend their home court and avenge last month’s 78-73 defeat in Brookings, a tie at the top of the standings seems likely (NDSU would also need to win at home against Omaha in its final game), but few expected the title race to be this close — even fewer expected the Jacks to be in sole possession of first place this late in the season.

NDSU was tabbed as the favorite to win the league in the preseason, receiving 23 of a possible 34 first-place votes. SDSU came in a distant fifth in the poll, but have exceeded expectations several times over.

The Bison faltered against the University of North Dakota Saturday night, allowing the Jacks to clinch a share of the title with a win in their own in-state rivalry less than 24 hours later, but that rivalry win came at a cost.

Standout forward Douglas Wilson looked hobbled for most of the afternoon and left late in the game and did not return. According to Henderson’s weekly update with, Wilson was still sore Monday and was scheduled for MRIs. No further updates on his health or status for Thursday’s game have been released.

Last month in Brookings, Wilson and frontcourt mate Matt Dentlinger scored 20 and 21 points, respectively, on 20-for-28 shooting and Alex Arians tallied 14 points, 11 rebounds and six assists to topple the Bison.

Despite these individual performances, NDSU came as close as anyone to knocking off the Jacks on their home court (SDSU finished a perfect 16-0 at Frost Arena in the regular season), losing by just five points. In that contest, the Bison’s Tyson Ward filled the stat sheet with 24 points, eight rebounds and five assists as NDSU racked up 51 second-half points, but an off night for Vinnie Shahid was enough for the Jacks to come out on top.

Shahid, the third-leading scorer in the Summit League at 18.3 points per game, went 4-for-16 from the field (2-of-10 from 3) and only reached 12 points in the previous matchup, and Henderson knows his team will have to play sound defense in Fargo to leave with a win.

“It starts with those two for sure,” Henderson said of Ward and Shahid. “Vinnie has the ball in his hands a lot and he’s so dynamic and electric getting to the basket, drawing fouls, finishes well at the hoop, but he can also pull up from 26 (feet), so you have to be engaged really early every single possession because he’s capable of making it at any time. And then Tyson is a very hard matchup for anyone in our league, so we’ll have to make some choices and decide what we’re going to limit. You can’t take away everything. There’s a lot to play for and I know our guys are excited, I know they’re excited, it should be a great environment.”

While SDSU is in the middle of one of the nation’s longest home winning streaks (23 games), NDSU has quietly proven to be tough to beat at home this season, going 11-1 at the Scheels Center with the lone loss coming more than three months ago.

But the same Jackrabbit team that started its season 1-7 on the road has now won five of its last six, and they’ve done it through the same recipe they’ve used to win 22 games in Henderson’s first season: by focusing on the short-term rather than the endgame.

“He comes in and tells it’s about getting better each and every day and to not look to what’s in March or February,” Arians said of his head coach. “We have to take this one game at a time and I think that’s what we’ve done and why we’ve been so good in the past. Some teams will look forward to March and kind of get lost in the middle of the season, so I think Hendo has done a great job instilling in us that every game we have to come out against even the bottom team in the Summit League. Take it one game at a time, keep getting better every day and we’ll be right where we want to be at the end of the season.”

That message doesn’t change player to player, but there’s little doubt both teams know what’s at stake Thursday evening.

“(We’ll approach Thursday the) same way we approach every game: locked in, ready to go,” said Noah Freidel, who scored a game-high 26 points against USD. “We have to be mentally and physically ready and go win one more if we really want the championship.”