ROCHESTER - For the entire Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament, Southwest Minnesota State made a commitment to press on defense. But for the first 30 minutes of Sunday's NSIC men's basketball tournament championship, the Mustangs were struggling to slow down Minnesota State-Moorhead's offense, specifically its outside shooting.
But the No. 2-seeded Mustangs stuck with the press, and for the last 10 minutes, it paid off.
"We feel like if we're playing our best, you're going to have to play a complete 40 minutes to beat us," said SMSU men's head basketball coach Brad Bigler. "In this tournament, we've been able to make runs in those last 10 minutes."
Photo by Joe Brown
Southwest Minnesota State's Lavione West (22) puts up a shot from the top of the key as Minnesota State-Moorhead's Andrew Vanhavermaet goes up for the block during the first half of Sunday's NSIC tournament championship game at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester.
For almost 10 minutes, the Mustangs held the No. 4-seeded Dragons without a field goal, coming back from an 11-point deficit to win the first NSIC tournament championship in school history and earn an automatic bid into the Central Region tournament with a 76-72 victory at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester.
"This has been our goal since the beginning of the season, to get to the conference championship and win it," said SMSU sophomore center Nick Smith. "No one in Southwest has ever done this before, so it's really something special."
Hours after their victory, the Mustangs were named the No. 4 seed in the Central Region tournament and learned they will once again be matched up against MSU-Moorhead in postseason play. SMSU will take on the fifth-seeded Dragons on March 10 in Golden, Colo., in opening-round action of the eight-team regional tournament.
Jordan Riewer 8-10 2-2 25, Charlie Chapman 3-11 0-0 8, DJ Hamilton 6-16 3-5 17, Andrew Vanhavermaet 1-5 0-0 3, Alex Novak 5-8 0-0 10, Jake Driscoll 2-6 1-2 7, Xavier Reed 0-1 0-0 0, Eric Olson 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 26-58 6-9 72. Three-Pointer 14-29 (Riewer 7-9) Rebounds 32 (Novak 14) Assists 11 Steals 2 Blocks 5 (Novak 3) Turnovers 18 Fouls 19.
Will Giddings 0-1 0-0 0, Vinard Birch 4-9 3-3 11, Jordan Miller 2-7 3-6 8, Matt Zager 6-11 0-0 12, Nick Smith 8-14 5-7 21, Tramel Barnes 0-4 2-2 2, Dalston Jones 0-0 0-0 0, Trent Carlson 0-2 0-0 0, Michael Appel 0-0 0-0 0, Lavione West 6-7 4-5 16, Casey Sussenguth 3-4 0-0 6. Totals 29-59 17-23 76. Three-Pointers 1-8 (Miller 1-5) Rebounds 32 (Smith 10) Assists 16 (Miller 5) Steals 6 (Miller 2) Blocks 6 (Smith 3) Turnovers 9 Fouls 13.
Halftime Score: MSU-Moorhead 36, SMSU 28.
Early on, MSU-Moorhead looked like it was going to play spoiler again after knocking off No. 1-seeded Bemidji State on Saturday. And pacing the Dragons on the perimeter was redshirt freshman Jordan Riewer, who hit his first four three-pointers in the first half. Riewer, who averaged 5.4 points per game coming into Sunday's championship game, finished with seven three-pointers and a game-high 25 points.
"He was hitting some shots off some scramble situations," Bigler said of Riewer. "Once he got going, he got the green light to fire like they all do when they get it going. It makes them even more deadly.
With eight first-half threes and a 48.3 shooting percentage, MSU-Moorhead led 36-28 after the first 20 minutes.
"Moorhead is capable of getting a lot of threes and hitting tough threes," said SMSU forward Lavione West. "In the first half, we didn't do a really good job on it, they had their legs under them and they were hitting the open shots."
So at halftime, the Mustangs had some adjustments to make. First, they wanted to neutralize Riewer by putting the NSIC's Defensive Player of the Year, Vinard Birch, on the young guard.
The Mustangs also wanted to keep the pace up and let their athletes and their depth wear down the Dragons.
"Our game plan all along is to get up, get into people and at the end of the game, I think it got them tired," Smith said. They weren't hitting the shots they hit in the first half.
Down 59-48 with 10 minutes, 12 seconds remaining, the Mustangs finally found some momentum, led by Smith.
Trailing 62-57 with 6:43 left, Smith scored the Mustangs' next eight points, including a layup with 4:08 left to give SMSU its first lead since the first half.
"A lot of our offense is getting penetration and getting easy dumpoffs, and that's where my points came from," said Smith, who finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
For the first 30 minutes, Alex Novak made life tough for Smith in the post, but in the last 10, the Mustangs' sophomore finally found some wiggle room in the paint.
"The intensity that last 10 minutes in the second half is what we needed to see out of him," Bigler said of Smith. "I think Novak, early in the game, had a couple blocked shots, was very physical with him and was actually frustrating Nick to some degree. It was nice to see the sophomore step up to the challenge."
Smith's run not only helped SMSU rally, but run away with the game, outscoring the Dragons 24-4 over a nine-minute stretch.
"Going into halftime, our plan was to create easy shot opportunities, and that's been our basketball the entire season," said West, who averaged 17.3 points per game in the NSIC tournament. "In the first half we kind of strayed from that. The second half, we came back to playing Mustang basketball."
West kept up his strong tournament play with 12 of his 16 points in the second half, earning the NSIC tournament's Most Valuable Player honor.
"He's a guy that's paid his dues and comes off the bench and has bought into his role," Bigler said of West. "And now that he's defending at this level, he's having more opportunities to score the basketball and he's taking advantage of it."
SMSU heads into the Central Region tournament with a 19-10 record.