Star showdown in Jacks-Bison battle goes to Grant Nelson
Potential NBA draft pick Nelson shines in rivalry meeting in semifinals
SIOUX FALLS — There was a lot of starpower on the court in Monday’s Summit League men’s basketball tournament semifinals.
For Oral Roberts and North Dakota State, the two teams advancing to the championship game, the efforts of star players Max Abmas and Connor Vanover and Grant Nelson are major reasons why their teams are moving on.
And the struggles of SDSU’s Zeke Mayo were, among many reasons, why the Jackrabbits’ championship aspirations came to an end in a 89-79 loss to the Bison at the Premier Center.
It was hardly on Mayo alone, the skilled 6-foot-3 sophomore guard who averages 18.2 points per game, a figure that swelled to 21.1 points per game against Summit League opponents. But Mayo finished 5-for-17 shooting on Monday, which was on the heels of a 3-for-16 outing in the win over Omaha on Saturday night in the quarterfinal round. Against NDSU, he finished with 18 points but had five turnovers, and had 14 points in the first round.
“Obviously, he’s disappointed with how he played,” SDSU coach Eric Henderson said. “... I know Zeke fought it a little bit this weekend but what I’m most excited about is how he’ll respond just like our whole team did this year.”
Star power has a history of mattering a lot regarding which team takes the championship trophy from the conference commissioner on Tuesday night.
In 10 of the last 14 tournaments -- all since the tournament moved to Sioux Falls -- the team with the men’s conference player of the year has won the Summit League tournament. That included Baylor Scheierman for the Jackrabbits in 2022 and Abmas himself in 2021, who spoke after ORU’s semifinal win Monday over St. Thomas about knowing what it takes to win in the Summit League tournament and doing “everything we can to get back to The Dance.”
NDSU’s Nelson, the 6-foot-11 standout with potential NBA skills, would be a worthwhile exception to that rule in 2023. On Monday, he set the tournament’s single-game record for rebounds with 22 and added 20 points in 39 minutes, including a 7-for-7 effort at the free throw line. In two games in the tournament, Nelson has scored 43 points and grabbed 33 rebounds in 77 of a possible 80 minutes and is 18-for-20 on free throws.
“They probably have a first-round draft pick on their team and he played really good,” Henderson said, adding later that Nelson “is extremely long and gets his hands on some balls that not a lot of dudes in our league can.”
After taking losses in the 2021 and 2022 title games to ORU and SDSU, respectively, Nelson spoke about wanting to finish first this time.
“We’ve been here before but this time it’s going to be different,” Nelson said.
Meanwhile, SDSU’s offense was never in the type of rhythm that the Jacks got used to during the season, averaging 70.7 points per game and shooting 45% from the field. SDSU (19-13) struggled to get to 63 points in a win on Saturday and 79 points scored on Monday came with defensive deficiencies against the Bison.
Matt Dentlinger, the Jacks’ second leading scorer at 12.3 points per game, never built much of a rhythm in the two games in Sioux Falls, with 18 total points, including 11 on Monday. Matt Mims and Alex Arians shined but the Jackrabbits found themselves with too many scoring droughts to stay in touch with the blistering shooting from the Bison.
“We had our backs against the wall a few times this year," Henderson said. "I told our guys in the locker room that what I’ll remember most is how we dealt with that personally. Finished second in our league in the regular season. … I know we won more than we lost and that wasn't the case early in the season, how we dealt with the tough times was pretty special.”