MARSHALL - Seeing its lead slip away in the midst of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament quarterfinals, Southwest Minnesota State needed what they call in practice a "Perfect 35."
After leading for the entire first half, the Mustangs were stalling, and Minneota-Duluth's high-powered offense was clicking, tying the game at 56 with 14 minutes, 45 seconds left in the game. Looking to play spoiler, the seventh-seeded Bulldogs went up 63-56 with 13:18 remaining, and frustration was mounting for the Mustangs.
"In a playoff game like this, especially against Duluth because they can go on big runs, you just have to come together and bring your defense together," SMSU junior guard Jordan Miller said.
Photo by Joe Brown
Southwest Minnesota State’s Jordan Miller, middle, goes up for a layup as Minnesota-Duluth’s Dylan Rodriguez defends late in the second half of Wednesday’s NSIC?tournament quarterfinals game at the R/A Facility. Fouled on the play, Miller hit the layup and made a free throw to complete the three-point play.
Then the team brought up the "Perfect 35": running a perfect set on offense within the 35 seconds on the shot clock. And over the next two minutes, SMSU clawed back into the game, going up 65-63.
"We did that probably four possessions in a row that got the game back in our hands and we got our confidence back," Miller said.
Regaining their composure on the offense end and coming up with some key stops in a back-and-forth second half, the No. 2-seeded Mustangs outscored the NSIC's highest scoring team en route to a 99-92 victory over the No. 7 Bulldogs to advance to the NSIC tournament semifinals.
Reece Zoelle 0-2 0-0 0, Jake Hottenstine 4-10 3-3 13, Riley Walker 5-9 2-3 14, Ryan Rasmussen 3-10 6-7 13, Erik Powers 0-0 0-0 0, Peter Crawford 3-4 3-3 10, Bryan Sprang 1-1 0-0 2, Dylan Rodriguez 3-3 0-0 6, Dan Kornbaum 3-3 3-3 9, Brett Ervin 9-11 7-10 25. Totals 31-53 24-29 92. Three-Pointers 6-16 (Hottenstine 2-4, Walker 2-4) Rebounds 30 (Hottenstine 11) Assists 21 (Crawford 10) Steals 7 (Hottenstine 2) Blocks 0 Turnovers 20 Total Fouls 29.
Will Giddings 4-9 2-3 11, Vinard Birch 3-6 4-6 11, Jordan Miller 7-12 4-5 21, Matt Zager 7-9 7-9 21, Nick Smith 2-6 6-6 10, Tramel Barnes 0-2 2-2 2, Dalston Jones 0-0 0-0 0, Trent Carlson 0-2 0-0 0, Lavione West 7-10 4-4 19, Casey Sussenguth 2-3 0-1 4. Totals 32-59 29-36 99. Three-Pointers 6-16 (Miller 3-7) Rebounds 26 Assists 13 Steals 12 (Miller 4, Smith 3) Blocks 0 Turnovers 11 Total Fouls 26.
Halftime Score: SMSU 44, Minnesota-Duluth 42.
"We knew going in that it was going to be a grind. Duluth's a good team," said Mustangs junior Lavione West. "When they were going on their run, everyone was looking around and Coach just kept saying, 'Keep your composure.'"
SMSU heads to Rochester Saturday for the NSIC tournament semifinals, where it will take on No. 6 seed Winona State. The Warriors, who are 2-0 against the Mustangs this season, defeated third-seeded St. Cloud State 64-53 on Wednesday.
Miller and Matt Zager led the way for SMSU (17-10 overall) with 21 points each. After the team struggled to attack the basket in the first half, Zager spearheaded the Mustangs' charge at the rim, with a 16-point second half.
"That's what Matt does. He drives hard and gets to the rim," SMSU head coach Brad Bigler said. "That's his skill and he's very efficient at it."
While SMSU had a 44-42 lead going into halftime, the Bulldogs shot 64 percent from the field, showing glimpses of the UMD team that upset the Mustangs 94-90 back on Jan. 20.
"Give Duluth credit, they got a lot of guys who can step out and shoot it. They shot it at one of the higher levels I've ever seen in a half," Bigler said. "Thankfully for us, we were up two and it could have been worse."
Pushing the Bulldogs back into the game was center Brett Ervin, who shot 9 of 11 from the field for a game-high 25 points. Along with Ervin, four other players scored in double figures as the Mustangs struggled to stop UMD from driving to the hoop in the first half.
"We were locking up a little too much on the backside and our rotations were a little slow," Bigler said.
"I'll tell you what, though. In the end, we were able to make some key stops."
And in the second half, the Mustangs were finally able to break through the Bulldogs' gap defense and drive to the hoop. With the inside game working, it opened things outside for the rest of the team as six players finished in double figures.
"We knew that we were settling for jump shots, and that's not our game. Our game is attack the rim, attack the rim, attack the rim, and that's what we emphasized in the second half," said West, who finished with a career-high 19 points. "Duluth does an excellent job in that gap defense. That's when you got to get in the lane and kick and find your open teammates."
Trailing 81-77 with 6:22 remaining, SMSU went on a 6-0 run, and with 4:10 left, a layup by Miller put the Mustangs up for good at 83-81. With its full-court press, SMSU forced UMD into 13 second-half turnovers, translating into 24 points off turnovers.
"Once we get our press going to the high caliber that we can, our team really gets a lot of confidence going and that's what happened," Miller said.
Ranked fifth in the latest Central Region rankings released on Wednesday, the Mustangs are trying to cement their own spot in the region. Meanwhile, Winona State needs to win the conference tournament in order to get into the Central Region tournament after having to nullify 13 NSIC games due to an ineligible player.
"Winona State's a very talented ball club and we all know they're playing to win this conference title to get into the NCAA tournament," Bigler said. "It'll be a tough challenge Saturday."