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Young Bison hang on to beat Western Illinois to earn a spot in Summit League men's basketball finals

North Dakota State's Sam Griesel (5) and Rocky Kreuser celebrate after defeating Western Illinois Monday night in the Summit League men's basketball tournament semifinal game in Sioux Falls, S.D. Dick Carlson / Inertia1 / 8
North Dakota State's Sam Griesel dribbles past Western Illinois' Ben Pyle during Monday night's Summit League men's basketball tournament semifinal game in Sioux Falls, S.D. Dave Eggen / Inertia2 / 8
North Dakota State's Vinnie Shahid drives off a screen from teammate Rocky Kreuser against Western Illinois' Kobe Webster during Monday night's Summit League men's basketball tournament semifinal game in Sioux Falls, S.D. Dick Carlson / Inertia3 / 8
North Dakota State's Deng Geu retrieves a pass between Western Illinois' James Claar, left, and Isaac Johnson during Monday night's Summit League men's basketball tournament semifinal game in Sioux Falls, S.D. Dick Carlson / Inertia4 / 8
North Dakota State's Tyson Ward dribbles at Western Illinois' Zion Young during Monday night's Summit League men's basketball tournament semifinal game in Sioux Falls, S.D. Dick Carlson / Inertia5 / 8
North Dakota State's Tyree Eady drives against Western Illinois' Kobe Webster during Monday night's Summit League men's basketball tournament semifinal game in Sioux Falls, S.D. Dave Eggen / Inertia6 / 8
North Dakota State's Jared Samuelson knocks the ball loose from Western Illinois' Kobe Webster during Monday night's Summit League men's basketball tournament semifinal game in Sioux Falls, S.D. Dick Carlson / Inertia7 / 8
North Dakota State's Jordan Horn looks to pass while guarded by Western Illinois' C.J. Duff during Monday night's Summit League men's basketball tournament semifinal game. Dick Carlson / Inertia8 / 8

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — With not one senior on its roster, North Dakota State's men's basketball team played like veterans Monday night and are now one win from the Big Dance.

The Bison, led by true freshman Sam Griesel's 20 points, hung on for a 76-73 victory against Western Illinois in the Summit League tournament semifinals at the Denny Sanford Premier Center.

The win puts the Bison into Tuesday night's championship game with the winner earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Division I tournament. This group of Bison, built more for the next two seasons and not so much this season, are now looking for the program's third tournament title in six years and fourth overall.

“I think it just takes a lot of growing up,” said NDSU point guard Vinnie Shahid.

And showing that growth Monday night was Griesel, a 6-foot-6 guard from Lincoln, Neb., who last fall committed to play at South Dakota. But when head coach Craig Smith left for Utah State, Griesel changed his mind and came to NDSU.

“I put a lot of time into that kid,” Bison head coach Dave Richman said about recruiting Griesel. “I swung and missed in the fall and came right back at him in the spring. Sam wants to be really good. You saw him grow up tonight.”

The Bison built a 34-19 lead in the first half during a run in which Griesel scored eight points.

But Western Illinois, a team with only one senior who gets substantial playing time, would not go away — two nights after becoming the first No. 8 seed to win a Summit League tournament game with its shocking first-round win over top-seeded South Dakota State.

Western Illinois took a 67-65 lead with 8 minutes, 42 seconds remaining in the second half.

The young Bison responded. Cameron Hunter, a sophomore from Olathe, Kan., drained a 3-pointer to give give the Bison a 68-67 lead. Griesel drained a trey to make it 71-67.

Holding a 73-71 lead, Griesel hit another 3-pointer with 3:21 remaining to make it 76-71.

“Sam is my guy,” said Shahid, a junior college transfer who instantly became one of the team’s captains. ”I kept telling him with his shot … be confident, be confident, be confident. And you saw that tonight.”

Western Illinois still would not quit, thanks in a big part to sophomore guard Kobe Webster, who led all scorers with 24 points. His driving layup cut the lead to 76-73 with 58 seconds remaining.

Webster got a chance to tie it after Western Illinois called time out with 19.6 seconds remaining. At the top of the key, Webster drove off a screen but turned down a shot before Griesel ended up covering him on a defensive switch. Webster put a 3-pointer with about five seconds remaining with Griesel’s hand in his face.

“I thought I played pretty good defense on him,” said Griesel, who saw Webster’s shot bounce off the rim.

“In my mind, I should’ve shot earlier,” Webster said. “I had some space on that one.”

Webster’s missed shot ended up in the hands of Western Illinois’ C.J. Duff, whose 3-pointer bounced off the front of the rim just before the buzzer.

“Welcome to March Madness,” Richman said. “That’s about the only explanation I have for you.”

Richman’s young crew will try to do what the Bison teams did in 2009, 2014 and 2015 — win a Summit tournament title and advance to the NCAA tournament.

The Bison, who have developed one of the strongest benches this season in the Summit League, got scoring from 10 different players. After making 10 of 14 3-pointers in the first half, the Bison ended up making 14 of 26 treys.

Shahid scored 14 points. Deng Geu, a junior who is playing in his hometown of Sioux Falls this week, came off the bench to score 11 points.

“Deng Geu was terrific, he played with a lot of confidence,” Richman said. “The whole team is playing with a lot of confidence. Three weeks ago, we lose this game.”

Richman may have been referring to NDSU’s 78-77 home loss to SDSU when the Jacks won on a halfcourt 3-pointer at the buzzer. Or he may have been referring to another game in which they saw a lead disappear in a 58-50 home loss to No. 2 seed Omaha.

“We’ve understood that the second half hasn’t been our strongest,” Shahid said. “It’s just a part of growing up again.”

WI (10-21): Pyle 5-8 1-2 14, Gilbeck 4-9 3-4 11, Young 2-4 2-3 7, Webster 10-17 2-2 24, Duff 3-9 0-0 7, Usiosefe 0-1 0-0 0, Montague 0-0 0-0 0, Claar 1-1 0-0 2, Johnson 2-7 4-4 8. Totals 27-56 12-15 73.

NDSU (17-15): Kreuser 2-3 0-0 5, Shahid 5-9 1-2 14, Griesel 8-12 2-2 20, Samuelson 1-2 0-0 3, Ward 1-6 1-3 3, Eady 3-7 0-0 8, Quayle 1-1 0-0 3, Hunter 2-4 0-0 6, Geu 3-6 4-5 11, Horn 1-4 0-0 3. Totals 27-54 8-12 76.

Half: NDSU 49, WI 40. Total fouls: WI 15, NDSU 16. 3-point goals: WI 7-16 (Pyle 3-4, Young 1-1, Webster 2-7, Duff 1-4), NDSU 14-26 (Kreuser 1-2, Shahid 3-4, Griesel 2-4, Samuelson 1-2, Eady 2-5, Quayle 1-1, Hunter 2-4, Geu 1-1, Horn 1-1). Rebounds: WI 33 (Gilbeck 11), NDSU 26 (Griesel 5, Ward 4, Geu 4). Assists: WI 7 (Young 3), NDSU 11 (Shahid 3). Turnovers: WI 6, NDSU 5.