They needed it, they got it

MARSHALL – Frustration mounting, desperation setting in, Southwest Minnesota State women’s basketball coach Allison Kruger didn’t mince her words following Friday night’s 71-58 loss to Upper Iowa, a game that saw her team out-rebounded 29-9 in the second half.

“We need a game. We need to win a game. We have to find a way to win a game,” Kruger said.

Saturday night, the reeling Mustangs responded to that sense of urgency, fighting tooth and nail against the Winona State Warriors to squeak out a 66-64 win in front of an energized “Hawaiian Night” crowd at the R/A Facility.

Prone to giving up big runs all season, the Mustangs never had a big lapse in Saturday’s win, just their second Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference victory of the season. And even as the Warriors (14-7 overall, 8-6 NSIC) knocked down big shot after big shot over the final six minutes to chip into SMSU’s 10-point lead, the Mustangs (3-16, 2-12) managed to come up with key plays when needed to hold the Warriors at bay.

Afterwards, Kruger expressed her joy in seeing her players be rewarded for fighting to the finish.

“We did need that, and we needed it in more than one way,” said Kruger, whose team earned its first win over WSU since 2006. “We needed that for the morale, and for them because they deserve it. They keep working hard and they don’t quit, and it was just a great team effort, I can’t express that enough.

“I have to give the team most of the credit. We handed them a game plan and I said, ‘Go do it.’ I gave them a little more responsibility on the court tonight and they did a great job with it. I have to trust them a little bit more and they showed me that tonight.”

It was a total turnaround from the first time these two teams met on Jan. 4 in Winona. The Warriors connected on 10 3-pointers in that game, inlcuding six from Becca Friestleben, in an easy 72-53 win.

Save for Winona State’s run over the final six minutes as they attempted to claw back from a double-digit deficit, the Warriors appeared disjointed on offense for much of Saturday’s game. That was in part because of SMSU’s defense, which negotiated WSU’s screens differently than in the Jan. 4 debacle.

“That’s what hurt us last time is we switched a lot of those screens, and it’s hard for a post player to jump out on a guard and not worry about getting burned,” Kruger said. “A team like this shoots the 3 so well that we wanted to be on their shooters and chase them and make them curl, make them go to the basket and make them beat us that way. And we did a great job of communicating all night long on the defensive end.”

WSU entered the game shooting 41.4 percent from 3-point range, tops in the conference. They ended the game 9-for-25 from 3-point range, with four of those 3s coming in the final six minutes as the Warriors made their late run. Friestleben hit five 3s and scored a game-high 23 points, while Katie Wolff hit three 3-pointers and scored 15.

SMSU’s scoring was much more balanced, with six players scoring seven or more points. Six-foot-3 forward Alison Nagel scored 14 to lead the team, while forward Ellen Degler added 12 points. Guards Bree Holleman and Mikalyla Saathoff scored 11 and 10 points, respectively, for SMSU, which shot 49 percent for the game.

The Mustangs showed from the start that they weren’t about to get routed again. The two teams went back and forth in the first half and were tied at 32 at halftime. The largest lead either team had in the half was four points.

Wolff scored the first basket of the second half on a layup and that would be the only WSU lead of the half. SMSU answered with back-to-back 3s from Holleman and Nagel to go up four. The Mustangs held a two or three basket lead for much of the half and went up 56-46 with 5:53 left in the game after getting layups by Rebekah Rolling and Saathoff on consecutive possessions. Saathoff’s layup came after she picked up one of her three steals in the game.

It was hustle plays by the Mustangs that Kruger felt were the difference. A key one came in the final minute as the Warriors were charging.

After Friestleben hit a 3 off an inbounds play to cut the lead to 62-59, SMSU’s Hope Bonlander made a poor pass on the perimeter that Friestleben picked off. She went the other way for the layup, but was chased down from behind by Rolling who blocked the shot with 33 seconds left. Saathoff got the rebound and was fouled. The freshman then went down and knocked down two clutch free throws.

“That’s the ting that we want to be known for is our hustle. You make a mistake on one end, you make up for it on the other,” Kruger said. “We had two players chasing the ball down from behind and Rebekah made an unbelievable play from behind. The thing that most people probably don’t realize in a situation like that is we got the rebound off of it, and in the past, we just haven’t done that. We’ve been jogging down the court thinking our three teammates can make the play, but that rebound was huge.”

Friestleben made a 3 with 15.7 seconds left to cut the lead back to two. Nagel was fouled a second later and knocked down two free throws that proved to be the difference.

The SMSU players gained energy from the Hawaiian Night crowd, which grew and grew as the second half went on. Kruger said the fans deserve a bit of credit for the win as well.

“People can say it’s not about the crowd, but even I noticed a couple of times in the second half when they were starting the ‘De-fense’ chant, and that’s just jacks your team up,” she said. “It’s fun to be a part of, so I appreciate the crowd being there for our game as well. It’s a fun night with a great atmosphere and you have to use that to your advantage.”

The Mustangs won’t have a crowd behind them in their next two games as they look to try to put their first winning streak of the season together. Friday they will travel to take on Bemidji State (4-10, 8-10), and Saturday the Mustangs go up against Minnesota-Crookston, which has an identical 2-12 record in the conference.