Mustang men stomp UMD

MARSHALL – They can’t seem to win on Fridays, but they don’t lose on Saturdays.

The Southwest Minnesota State men’s basketball team bounced back from another gut-wrenching defeat with a comfortable 76-64 victory over Minnesota-Duluth Saturday at the R/A Facility. Winless on Friday night games in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, the Mustangs are now 4-0 on the back end of weekend sets.

Coming off a tough 71-69 loss to St. Cloud State the previous night, SMSU shot 61.2 percent from the field, 62.5 percent (5-for-8) from the 3-point line and made 11 of 12 free throws to bounce the Bulldogs. It’s the second time this season SMSU has finished a game with a field goal percentage above 60 percent.

“It goes back to our guys playing to their strengths, playing unselfish,” SMSU head coach Brad Bigler said of the team’s hot shooting. “I truly believe that we should try to get action to the rim to try to score at the rim or to create an easy opportunity for a teammate. It’s something that I repeat and say a lot, but we mean it. When you put up those types of numbers, it’s a compliment to those guys playing unselfish.”

SMSU (8-8 overall, 5-4 NSIC) got just five points off the bench in its loss to the Huskies. Saturday, senior forward Lavione West poured in a season-high 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting to give the team a big boost.

West made a few tough contested jumpers off the dribble and also scored going to the rim. His loudest two points of the night came when Jordan Miller lobbed a pass from the top of the key towards the basket and a cutting West threw down a ferocious two-handed slam to put his team up 58-46 in the second half and ignite the crowd.

Bigler said West carries a difficult responsibility as an emotional leader, and said the team generally reflects the energy level he brings to the game. West wasn’t at 100 percent for the weekend, but said he felt a need to pick up his scoring Saturday.

“My mindset is the same every game, to try to do what the team needs from me,” he said. “Today it was be a little bit more aggressive. (Friday) night I wasn’t feeling too well, just like tonight, but at the same time, you have to play through things and if Coach puts me out there I’ve got to perform. I was just being overly aggressive tonight and that’s what the team wanted from me.”

West was one of five Mustangs to crack double digits in scoring. Miller led the team with 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting and also had a team-high eight boards. Center Nick Smith added 13 points, point guard Vinard Birch added 12, and guard Matt Zager drilled both of his 3-point attempts and scored 10.

Two Bulldogs combined to score 44 of UMD’s points, as skilled center Brett Ervin and guard Reece Zoelle each put up 22. Ervin scored 13 points in the first half and helped the Bulldogs withstand SMSU’s hot shooting by making some tough shots around the paint. The 6-foot-7, 220-pound junior who leads the NSIC in 3-point percentage bodied up against SMSU’s post players and scored mostly on fadeaways.

“He’s a special player. He’s one of those guys who, in a 1-on-1 situation, he’s very difficult to stop, but I thought tonight we tried to make him work for everything,” Bigler said. “I think at times he was hitting that fadeaway and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Ervin hit a jumper with 3 minutes, 22 seconds left in the half to put UMD up 30-29, but SMSU closed the half on a 9-0 run. The Bulldogs never got closer than eight points the rest of the game.

SMSU’s offense never really slowed down at any point in the game. Speedy guard Vinard Birch had a big hand in that by probing the defense, driving through the lane and either scoring at the rim or kicking out to a teammate for an open shot.

“Teams are going to guard us differently every night, they’re going to come at us from different angles for help and Vinard has to be able to make the right reads,” Bigler said. “Tonight, Duluth locked up a lot on the perimeter guys so Vinard was able to turn the corner and get a lot of layups. He’s improving every weekend with his reads.

“It’s still a fairly new offense. We weren’t as detailed with it last year and this year we’re getting more detailed with it and there are still a lot more reads we’re trying to improve on.”

SMSU has two games before its next Saturday contest. The Mustangs are on the road to play Sioux Falls Tuesday, then go to Aberdeen, S.D., Friday to play Northern State before closing the weekend with Minnesota State-Moorhead Saturday. West said it’s not the offense the Mustangs have to worry about as they try to put a winning streak together, but what they do on the other end of the floor.

“We have to come out with the same energy that we did today and play Mustang basketball,” West said. “It’s been a while since we played the way we did today on both ends of the floor, not just offensively, because offensively we do a pretty good job every night. Defensively, we just haven’t quite clicked and I think tonight was a step in the right direction.”