Averaging 14.3 points per game, it was a bit of a shock to have Jordan Miller scoreless in the first half of Southwest Minnesota State's game against Minnesota State-Mankato.
But in the second half, Miller heated up, scoring all of his team-high 19 points after halftime, pushing the Mustangs to a 79-71 Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference victory Saturday and clinch the No. 2 seed in the NSIC tournament.
"Going into the weekend, we were thinking we'd probably get either the three or four and play Augustana or Winona," said SMSU head men's basketball coach Brad Bigler. "To come out with the second spot and getting close to a conference title, we're right where we need to be in this tournament."
SMSU hosts No. 7-seeded Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the conference tournament, which tips off at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the R/A Facility. SMSU is making Wednesday's game a "white-out," encouraging fans to come to the game dressed in white.
SMSU, which finished the regular season at 15-7 in the NSIC, and 16-10 overall, split the regular-season series with the Bulldogs. UMD won the first matchup 94-90 in Mankato on Jan. 20, and the Mustangs won the rematch 90-69 on Feb. 18 in Marshall.
"We know this time around, it'll be more difficult a game,"?Bigler said.
Miller shot 6 of 10 from the field, and had three three-pointers to lead the team in scoring. Sophomore post Nick Smith followed Miller with 17 points and seven rebounds.
"When Jordan gets it going, there's no question our guys feed off that," Bigler said. "Guys like Nick Smith and Matt Zager were also playing at a pretty high level. When they get going, that's pretty tough for a lot of teams."
SMSU jumped out to a 20-7 first-half lead, but the Mavericks got hot late in the half with an 11-4 run to cut the deficit to eight at halftime.
"(Stephen) Kirschbaum was a very difficult guard for us, and Jimmy Whitehead had a good stretch in the second half," Bigler said. "The biggest thing for us coming back out was our effort on the defensive end. It was about doing what we're about and staying true to Mustang basketball."
After consecutive buckets by Kirschbaum and Whitehead, MSU-Mankato (6-16 NSIC, 7-19) cut SMSU's lead to 64-59 late in the second half. The two teams traded buckets late until Lavione West hit a pair of free throws to put SMSU up 77-69.
Matt Zager finished with 14 points for the Mustangs, and Will Giddings added six points and seven boards. Whitehead and Kirschbaum scored 24 and 22 points, respectively, and Connor O'Brien had 11 points and eight rebounds.
Jordan Miller 6-10 4-4 19, Nick Smith 7-11 3-4 17, Matt Zager 7-11 0-0 14, William Giddings 2-4 1-2 6, Vinard Birch 0-4 2-2 2, Tramel Barnes 2-2 3-4 7, Lavione West 2-4 3-4 7, Trent Carlson 2-5 0-0 6, Casey Sussenguth 0-1 1-2 1. Totals 28-53 17-22 79. Three-Pointers 6-12 (Miller 3-5, Carlson 2-5) Rebounds 37 (Smith 7, Giddings 7) Assists 10 (Barnes 3) Steals 9 Blocks 2 Turnovers 16 Total Fouls 16.
Jimmy Whitehead 10-17 3-5 24, Stephen Kirschbaum 8-20 22, Connor O'Brien 4-10 2-2 11, Zach Romashko 4-11 0-0 9, Miles Chamberlain 0-0 0-0 0, Alex Hanks 2-4 0-0 5, Travis Meinders 0-1 0-0 0, TJ Okafor 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 28-66 7-9 71. Three-Pointers 8-26 (Kirschbaum 4-12) Rebounds 29 (O'Brien 8) Assists 10 (Whitehead 8) Steals 11 (Kirschbaum 3) Blocks 6 Turnovers 15 Total Fouls 14.
Halftime Score: SMSU 40, MSU-Mankato 32.