Another Friday night heartbreaker

MARSHALL – Another Friday night and another bitter loss for the Southwest Minnesota State men’s basketball team. Despite leading for the first 35 minutes of the game, the Mustangs fell to Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference foe St. Cloud State University 71-69 at the R/A Facility.

The Mustangs (7-8 overall, 4-4 NSIC), who led 32-27 at halftime, led by as much as nine points with 17 minutes, 4 seconds remaining in the game, but could not prevent the Huskies from mounting a comeback.

SMSU had built its lead by holding the Huskies to 30 percent shooting in the first half thanks to a combination of lock-down defense and missed open looks by SCSU. After stretching their lead to 40-31, however, the Mustangs saw the Huskies come alive on the offensive end as St. Cloud outscored SMSU 40-29 over the final 17 minutes.

“Well one, they’re a good shooting team,” SMSU head coach Brad Bigler said of the Huskies. “They’re a team that normally shoots 39 percent from the 3. I thought there were times where we were a little slow at getting out there and they took advantage of a few ball screens and knocked down a couple shots. They just made the plays.”

One of those plays came from Theo Rothstein, who finished the game with a team-high 14 points after scoring at least 20 in his last three games. Rothstein slashed to the basket and scored on a layup to give St. Cloud its first lead at 56-55 with 5:28 to play.

SMSU’s Jordan Miller knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to put SMSU back in front twice, but the Huskies answered with a pair of 3s of their own. Jordan Poydras knocked down an open 3 from the right wing to give SCSU a 59-58 lead, while Connor Niehaus’ contested look from the left corner gave the Huskies a 62-61 lead with 4:00 to play.

The Mustangs were once again back in the lead after a Nick Smith layup with 3:46 to go in the game, but Rothstein was fouled on St. Cloud’s return trip down the court and sunk both free throws.

The Huskies (10-2, 6-2) never trailed again, though SMSU came close to tying the game with less than a minute to go. Matt Zager had cut the SCSU lead to two points at 69-67 with 58 seconds left, while the Mustangs forced a pair of stops on the defensive end.

Then, with seven seconds remaining, Smith thought he had tied the game for the Mustangs with a tip-in, but was somehow called for offensive goaltending. Though he finished with a game-high 20 points, Smith arguably should have had 22.

“That’s something where, in regards to St. Cloud’s defense, they don’t double the post,” Bigler said of Smith’s success against the Huskies. “They go a lot of one-on-one on the post so he’s going to have his opportunities to make plays. And I thought he did tonight. It’s unfortunate that last tip-in didn’t count, but he did show the effort.”

Crucial to the Huskies’ comeback was a 28-5 disparity in points off the bench, as the Mustangs were unable to find any true help outside of their starting five. Of SMSU’s five bench points, all of them came from William Giddings.

“We weren’t ready to go tonight in a lot of areas,” Bigler said. “That’s frustrating as a coach, but the bench, the lack of scoring off the bench, we didn’t have that same energy off the bench that we normally have and we need everyone to show up.”

Having been forced to swallow its third consecutive bitter pill on a Friday, the Mustangs will look to bounce back against Minnesota-Duluth tonight.

“At the end of the day to take out of this one is probably more of the big picture,” Bigler said. “We had some poor practices this week and we played tonight how we’ve been practicing the last couple of days. They just look like they need to get back to a routine, we need school to start.”