Mustang men trounce Minot State

MARSHALL – An up-and-down start to the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference schedule dashed the hopes of a regular season conference title for an experienced Southwest Minnesota State men’s basketball team that was picked second in the league’s preseason poll. Their goals adjusted, the Mustangs entered a four-game homestand looking to make up some ground in the standings and hit their stride as the end of the season draws near.

Facing NSIC newcomer Minot State Saturday, SMSU capped the first half of its homestand with a comfortable 78-68 victory over the Beavers to extend its win streak to three games. The victory gives the Mustangs (14-11 overall) an 11-7 mark in NSIC play, placing them seventh in the conference standings and two games out of a coveted spot in the top four.

SMSU senior guard Tramel Barnes scored a career-high 17 points Saturday, connecting on all six of his shots from the field while also tallying three rebounds, two steals and a pair of assists. He said the Mustangs realize its time to get down to business and feels weekend wins over the University of Mary and Minot State have the team moving in the right direction.

“We dug ourselves into a little bit of a hole in the first half of the conference season, but as we go, we just have to keep fighting,” Barnes said. “I think we’re a game or two out of that home playoff game that we want, and we’re fighting for that big time. Right now we just have to keep this little rally, this three-game streak that we have, going and keep playing hard one game at a time.”

Minot State (8-14 overall, 7-11 NSIC) is the worst shooting team in the NSIC this season and the Beavers looked like it to start Saturday’s contest. They scored the game’s opening basket on their first possession but didn’t crack double figures until 12 minutes had elapsed in the opening half.

SMSU, meanwhile, shot 61.9 percent in the half and bolted out to a 23-8 lead. Guard Jordan Miller hit two 3-pointers in the half. He finished with 15 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two blocks. And center Nick Smith went 6-for-6 from the foul line in the half, finishing with 13 points and eight rebounds in the game. Smith also had four of SMSU’s seven blocked shots to tie Jeremy VanKlompenburg’s SMSU career record of 117.

While Minot State focused on stopping Smith and Miller, the defense sagged off of Barnes. He made the Beavers pay by going perfect from the field and scoring 10 points above his season average.

“You know, I’m just getting left wide open every time,” Barnes said. “When Jordan Miller and Nick Smith are getting doubled and I get the ball at that 15- to 17-foot mark, I know I have to shoot it every time.

“I’ve been working on that jump shot a lot every day and right now I’m feeling pretty confident in it. You just have to keep on practicing and take advantage of the opportunity when you get it.”

After SMSU’s hot start, the Mustangs got a bit careless with the basketball and committed nine turnovers in the half. That allowed Minot State to creep back into the game, and a layup by guard E.J. Williams cut the SMSU lead to 38-30 at the half.

The Beavers continued to put the pressure on SMSU in the second half and used a 7-0 run to cut the lead to three. A jumper by Williams, who led Minot State with 13 points, made the score 46-43 with 13:29 remaining.

SMSU guard Matt Zager helped get the lead back up to double figures, coming up with a steal that led to a layup by Smith at the other end, then draining a 3-pointer with 7:46 remaining to give SMSU a 60-50 edge.

Struggles from the foul line prevented the Mustangs from putting Minot State away as early as they could have. After making all nine of their free throws in the first half, they were just 13-for-23 in the second half. With the door left open, Minot State cut the lead to six on a 3-point play by sophomore guard Adam Randall with 1:13 on the clock. But Barnes hit four free throws and senior forward Lavione West knocked down a pair of free throws and threw down a dunk in the final minute to help seal the victory. West finished with 12 points off the bench.

SMSU head coach Brad Bigler said he thought his players handled themselves well down the stretch when Minot State made a rally.

“It is difficult at the end of games because they’re going to put their head down and try to get to the rim, and that’s where a good defensive team has to step up and take some charges,” he said. “That’s something we could have been better at the last couple of minutes, but I thought on the offensive end we controlled the tempo and shortened the game a lot by limiting the amount of possessions they were going to have opportunities to come back on. That’s what we need to do at the end of ballgames. It’s been working for us and it did tonight, as well.”

The Mustangs have a chance to make up some more ground in the conference standings next weekend when they host Wayne State on Friday and Augustana on Saturday. Augustana sits in a three-way tie for third in the NSIC at 13-5.

All teams in the NSIC came together the past two weekends in an effort to prevent drunk driving. Brad and Heather Bigler, who lost their 5-month-old son, Drake, last July in a crash caused by a drunk driver, partnered with the NSIC, the NCAA and the TEAM Coalition for the “It’s a Slam Dunk – Don’t Drive Drunk” campaign. Fans in attendance of games across the NSIC were encouraged to sign pledge cards that they wouldn’t drink and drive, and also received bracelets inscribed with the campaign’s slogan and Drake’s name on them.

Before the SMSU and Minot State men took the court Saturday, Drake Bigler was shown in a video tribute and the student section broke the silence following the tribute by singing “Amazing Grace.” Even though Brad Bigler wasn’t on the court at the time, he said it was a special moment.

“I think any time we can build awareness on something like this, it’s a good cause,” he said. “I wasn’t out there before the game but I heard about the singing and, I’ll be honest with you, it was pretty emotional. That’s where the people of Marshall have been there, have been so supportive of us, and we’re so thankful to be here and to have this opportunity and we’re very blessed.”