Mustang men set the tone vs. UIU

MARSHALL – A week removed from exorcising its Friday demons, the Southwest Minnesota State men’s basketball team left nothing to chance in a 74-55 thumping of the Upper Iowa Peacocks at the R/A Facility on Friday.

The energy level for the Mustangs (11-9 overall, 8-5 NSIC) was elevated from the outset, as SMSU held the Peacocks to just 19 first-half points. Upper Iowa, which entered the game third in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference standings, was unable to match the intensity of the Mustangs at any point in the game.

“I give our guys a lot of credit,” SMSU head coach Brad Bigler said. “I think our leadership really, in the last seven days, has changed. I give credit to Vinard Birch and Tramel Barnes and a lot of guys, but it just starts with those two at the point guard spot. I think they’ve really just taken ahold of the team and have really done a good job of it.”

Birch was one of five Mustangs who finished the game in double figures, compiling his 11 points through aggressive drives to the basket or at the free throw line.

SMSU shot 54 percent from the field for the game and went 18 of 22 from the stripe.

The primary beneficiary of the Mustang half-court offense was senior Jordan Miller, who scored a team-high 18 points. Miller, Birch and Matt Zager (who scored 10 points) each attacked the rim via the lane or the baseline. William Giddings added 13 points, including a pair of free throws to cap off a 16-0 run for SMSU, giving the Mustangs a 65-36 lead with seven minutes, 32 seconds to play.

Giddings also hit three 3s, as he and Lavione West, who scored 14 points, knocked down open jump shots on kick outs from Birch, Barnes and Miller.

“We’ve been doing that all year, our offense is hard to defend the way it is with all four guys driving, and tonight it worked out,” Miller said.

For as effective as the Mustangs were on the offensive end, they were just as ferociously efficient on the defensive end. SMSU held the Peacocks to just 38 percent shooting for the game and just 25 percent on 3s. Active hands and 30 defensive rebounds kept the Peacocks in check in their preferred half-court offense.

“When you play Upper Iowa, that’s going to be the style of play,” Bigler said of the half-court, grind it out game. “They kind of dictate the tempo of the game a little bit and it’s hard to get them out of that. We were going to have to beat them in a half-court game and I thought we executed well on the offensive end and were very patient. Our decision making was very good in traffic, we weren’t forcing things.

“On the defensive end, I thought we kept their action out of the paint and made them a jump shooting team,” he added. “Fortunately for us, sometimes your defense looks good when they miss shots. I thought they missed a lot of open shots tonight where I think they normally knock those down.”

SMSU took its largest lead of the game on West’s near dunk with 4:54 remaining. A late tip by the defender jarred the ball loose, but West was able to guide the ball into the cylinder regardless and give the Mustangs a 71-38 advantage.

With 2:23 to play and a 73-40 lead, Bigler emptied his bench as members of the famed “Goon Squad” took to the floor.

“I think any time you get an opportunity to play those guys on the end of the bench, you kind of reward them for all their efforts,” Bigler said. “We had an article early in the year about their importance and it’s always nice to be able to reward them.”

The Mustangs will look to unload their bench again, as well as pull off the upset in their next contest, as they host No. 25 Winona State at 7 p.m. as part of SMSU’s “Hawaiian Night.” The Warriors snuck past SMSU in overtime, 91-83, in Winona on Jan. 4.

“Our chemistry is coming together, but we’ve got a tough one tomorrow and we’ll be ready to go,” Miller said.