Summit League tournament: Alex Arians, defense, propel South Dakota State past Omaha
Jackrabbits outscore Mavericks 21-3 at the free throw line
SIOUX FALLS — Second-seeded South Dakota State and 10th-seeded Omaha treated a Denny Sanford Premier Center crowd of 8,608 to an exhibition in bricklaying in Saturday night's Summit League tournament quarterfinal.
The Mavericks made just 6-of-32 shots in the second half. That's 18.8 percent.
The Jackrabbits made 5-of-28 shots in the second. That's 17.9 percent.
Yes, the defense was good from both teams. But the shooting was bad enough that fans seated near the basket might've been safer wearing a helmet.
This is not new for the SDSU men's team, or their fans, as they've developed something of a history of looking less than their best selves in the opening round of the conference tournament. But the win they eventually secured on Saturday, by a 63-55 score in a game where the teams combined for only 39 second-half points, was not one they needed to apologize for.
The Jacks have had an up-and-down season. They're not as deep or as skilled as some of their better teams have been. They advanced, and that's all that matters.
SDSU (19-12) overcame their brutal marksmanship by stepping up their second-half defense and getting themselves to the free-throw line, where they outscored the Mavericks 21-3, to move on to Monday's semifinals, where they will face the winner of North Dakota State and South Dakota. Those teams play Sunday night at 8:30.
"We beat Omaha a couple times already this year by over 20 points, and so our guys, you know, are maybe not as happy as they should be in the locker room," said Jacks coach Eric Henderson. "I'm like, no, no, no, no, boys. Wins, right now, it doesn't matter if it's by one point or what, we need to celebrate."
Omaha got bad news before the game started, as their second-leading scorer and rebounder, Marques Sutton, hurt his foot in pre-game warmups and was unable to play.
In his absence, the Mavs turned to the perimeter and started the game on fire. Jaeden Marshall couldn't miss, scoring 19 points in the first half, as Omaha went 9-for-16 from outside the arc before the break. Seemigly confident that they would continue shooting that well for the duration and apparently unaware that they came into the game with an 8-22 record and zero NCAA tournament appearances, Mavs players did not hesitate to taunt Henderson more and more with each made 3 until Frankie Fidler was finally hit for a technical foul after doing it right in front of an official.
For all the big shots the Mavs hit in the first half, they still trailed 40-39 at the break. Not surprisingly, they cooled off in the second. Marshall did not score after the intermission and Omaha went 1-of-13 from outside.
"I think it was a little bit of us being a step slow and them just hitting shots," Jacks guard Charlie Easley said of Omaha's hot first half.
As for the second, Henderson gave Easley credit for helping to slow Marshall. The reserve guard had eight points, eight rebounds and two steals off the bench.
"We decided to play smaller to match up with their perimeter so they weren't getting downhill," Henderson said. "And Charlie was on Marshall, and Charlie is a tough cookie. Man, he made some big-time plays defensively."
Still, SDSU's own offensive struggles kept Omaha in it even after they went cold.
Leading by four with six minutes left, Matt Mims hit a 3 to make it 54-47, and with the way the teams were shooting, a 7-point lead felt like 15. Zeke Mayo, who made just 3-of-16 shots and went 0-for-8 from 3, hit two at the line to make it a 9-point game with 2:56 to play, and that was enough to do it.
Mayo finished with 14 points and nine rebounds, but it was Alex Arians who captained the win for SDSU. The senior led the Jacks with 18 points, going a perfect 8-of-8 at the line, hitting two 3-pointers and finishing a game-high plus-11 when on the floor. He was only 4-of-14 from the floor, but it seemed whenever the Jacks needed a big play on either end, he was the one stepping up and doing it on this night.
"We needed someone to step up like that," Henderson said. "And obviously Alex has been in this situation a few times. He's been in this moment. We trust Alex. He's just been so calm in that situation so many times."
When Mims was fouled with 21 seconds left and the fans roared in approval as Omaha's final chance had been extinguished, Arians raised his arms in triumph. He looked equal parts relieved and fired up. The next one will be tougher.
But for a 6th-year senior whose 149 games played is more than any player in Jackrabbit history, these are emotional games. Arians missed a handful of games for personal reasons earlier this year. Now he'll relish everyone he gets.
"I obviously didn't want this to be my last game," Arians said. "I want to make the most of it. I just want to do whatever I can to make my team win."