North Dakota State closed out one arena with an exclamation point a few days ago, cutting down the Bison Sports Arena nets after they clinched the outright Summit League regular season championship with a win over South Dakota. The Bison are hoping that recent history repeats itself this week at the Summit League Tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D. Ironically, less than two weeks after playing what was likely their last game ever in the BSA as we know it, the Bison have a chance to close down Sioux Falls Arena in similar fashion – and to cut down some more nets.
This is the last Summit League Tournament that will be played in Sioux Falls Arena. Next year, the tournament moves into the state-of-the-art, brand-spanking-new, $115 million modern basketball cathedral that is the Denny Sanford Premier Center. The 12,000-seat arena is right across the parking lot from the old one. Sioux Falls Arena was aptly nicknamed the “old barn” by ESPN commentators during the tournament’s first year here in 2009. That year produced the signature moment in the tournament’s Sioux Falls history, Ben Woodside’s game-winning shot in the final seconds of the championship game against Oakland, sending NDSU to the NCAA Tournament.
Not much has changed in the Arena during the Summit League’s six years calling it home, or, for that matter, in the Arena’s 53-year history. The Wikipedia page for the Sanford Premier Center goes as far to note that updates to the old barn have been “few and far between.” And that’s just fine. What the Arena lacks in bells and whistles it more than makes up for in warmth. It’s a step back in time with a turn back the clock feel. This is your grandfather’s gym. The majority of its seats are wooden. The pep bands still put on a show, and, in an age where new arenas feature in-house dining and luxury cuisine, the Arena fare consists of the same popcorn, nachos, hotdogs and soda that have been concession staples since the days of Wooden and Naismith.
It’s all about the basketball. USA Today ran a feature story on March 6, calling the Summit League Tournament “March’s best-kept secret.” The secret has started getting out. The barn’s wooden seats are regularly full to watch stars like Woodside and this season’s Summit League Player of the Year, Taylor Braun, compete for a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Summit League Tournament will soon enter the top third of all conference tournaments in terms of attendance. Of the 31 conference tournaments in NCAA Division I, the league finished 12th in average attendance each of the past two seasons. In 2013, the tournament averaged 5,928 spectators per session. As this year’s top overall seed, there should be plenty of Bison fans making the three and a half hour drive down I-29 to the old barn.
Like ESPN, USA Today described the Arena as a “barn-like venue.” No matter how you describe it, it’s been a great place to watch basketball and is home to one of the most memorable moments in NDSU athletic history. In its last hurrah, the barn can burn another indelible image into the memories of NDSU fans. The Bison are the favorites to stand on the ladder Tuesday night and cut down some nets. In the process, the Bison can burn this barn down, figuratively speaking, of course. It would be a fitting ending for the old barn, one delivered by a team that has already closed down one arena this season.