FARGO – The biggest nonconference road win in Tarleton men’s basketball history fell one point short in gut-wrenching fashion on Monday.
The Texans led wire-to-wire but suffered a 54-53 defeat to North Dakota State inside the Scheels Event Center after a drive to the rack through a Bison double team by Montre Gipson fell short as time expired.
Tarleton held the advantage on the scoreboard for more than 32 minutes. A pair of clutch free throws by Javontae Hopkins with 1:19 to go stymied a late NDSU run and put the Texans ahead 53-52.
The Texans then induced a Bison offensive foul on the following possession but an ensuing 3-point attempt by Tahj Small clanged off the back iron, giving NDSU one final shot to steal a win in front of an announced crowd of 1,600 spectators.
The Bison put the ball in the hands of 6-10 forward Rocky Kreuser – a preseason All-Summit League first team honoree and one of the most decorated players in NDSU history. Kreuser drove to the rim with Tarleton sophomore Freddy Hicks supplying the defense. Hicks, 6-6, planted his feat outside the restricted area as Kreuser initiated contact with seven seconds remaining. The whistle, though, went in favor of the team sporting green and yellow. Kreuser, who entered the game averaging 14 points and eight rebounds per outing, sunk both foul shots.
Preventing Kreuser from catching the ball deep in the post was a major point of emphasis for Tarleton on its scout. Despite surrendering four inches, the sophomore swingman Hicks executed head coach Billy Gillispie’s charge masterfully.
Hicks, the reigning WAC Freshman of the Year, held Kreuser to 3-9 shooting and just one made field goal inside the paint. The Searcy, Arkansas native was arguably the best player on the court on either side, as he finished with 15 points and game-highs in rebounds (nine) and blocks (two).
Following Kreuser’s pair of free throws, Tarleton head coach Gillispie called one final timeout to draw up a decisive play. Gipson got the ball at the top of the key and drove left. The 5-11 guard was bumped as he attempted to get to the line or convert through contact but no call came in from the officials.
The narrative surrounding the last play of the evening was a microcosm of the ballgame as a whole. NDSU had no field goals over the final 4:54 of play and converted just five attempts inside the arc. Tarleton, though, was flagged for 17 fouls and drew 10 of its own. The Texans also finished with the edge in turnovers forced (13-6) and points in the paint (24-8).
Entering the game, Gillispie said that for Tarleton to win, it had to dirty the game up defensively. NDSU returned 94 percent of its minutes and 93 percent of its scoring from a season ago.
The message appeared to resonate through the evening’s first 20 minutes.
Tarleton raced out to a 6-0 lead two minutes into the contest behind consecutive 3-pointers by Gipson and Small. The Texans later snapped a 15-15 tie at the 10-minute mark of the first half behind an 11-0 run while holding NDSU to an 0-11 mark from the field in that stretch. Freshman Noah McDavid canned a fadeaway jumper from the right key to make the score 26-15 with 1:45 left in the period and give Tarleton its largest lead of the night. Hicks forced Kreuser into his second foul on the previous possession and knocked down a pair at the charity stripe.
NDSU closed the half on a 9-0 run but Tarleton entered the locker room with a 19-15 edge on the glass and limited the Bison to 36 percent shooting from the field. The Texans never trailed and led for more than 17 minutes.
Gipson and Small combined for 10 of Tarleton’s first 12 points out of the intermission to maintain Tarleton’s lead at 40-35 with 9:45 remaining,
Eight of Gipson’s 11 points came in the second half. The senior has now scored in double figures in 18 of his 24 showings in Purple and White and nine of his last 11 games.
Small was every bit as good. The 6-5 guard finished with 12 points and seven rebounds. The senior has grabbed at least six boards in four of Tarleton’s five games this season.
NDSU got just enough going from the perimeter to turn the game into a dog fight down the stretch.
Kreuser and Quinn Cook, who finished with a game-high 17 points, bookended 3-pointers around a layup to even things at 40 apiece.
Gipson responded with a layup to regain Tarleton’s initiative but NDSU countered with a 6-0 run behind two straight looks from long range to lead it 49-44 with 4:54 remaining.
Tarleton, and Hopkins in particular, refused to bow. The 6-0 guard and the lone holdover from the Texans D2 era converted an and-one from his non-dominant right side to get Tarleton back within two points. Hicks and Shamir Bogues (6 points, 3 rebounds), kept the game level at 51-51 with just over 2:00 to play following consecutive buckets.
The Texans were held to a season-low 36 percent shooting (20-55) from the field and 3-16 from long range.
As a team, Tarleton went 10-11 (90.9 percent) at the foul line. The Texans have now shot above 80 percent on foul shots three times this season.
Shakur Daniel dished out a team-high three assists while Bouges and Small each swiped the ball away three times.
Tarleton now draws No. 20 Michigan at 7 p.m. on Wednesday in Ann Arbor.