Zager’s perfect game helps power SMSU men past WSC

MARSHALL – A week after Wayne State College (Neb.) made comebacks of 18 and 20 points, the members of the Southwest Minnesota State men’s basketball team knew they had their work cut out for them.

And when the Wildcats cut a 13-point Mustang halftime lead down to three less than five minutes into the second half, it looked like they were poised for a third big comeback.

“Wayne State is always a scary team because of their ability to come back from big numbers,” said SMSU head coach Brad Bigler. “They’ve shown it over and over that they can do it.”

But the Mustangs would have none of it.

Shooting a season-high 65.2 percent from the floor, SMSU weathered the early WSC storm in the second half to come away with an 87-69 Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference win on Friday night.

“I thought you saw some good leadership,” Bigler said. “I thought from our guard play all the way down, they really handled it well, they expected and knew Wayne had that ability to do that.

“It wasn’t like it caught us off guard. It was the ability to refocus and find a way to execute the next play.”

The Mustangs (15-11 overall, 12-7 NSIC) struck first and quickly built a 5-0 lead just under two minutes in before the Wildcats (15-10, 9-10) came back. The teams traded leads three times in just over 30 seconds before Wayne State built its largest lead of the night, 13-9, six minutes in.

With 11:47 left in the half, Matt Zager, who scored a career-high 25 points, hit the Mustangs’ only 3 on the night to regain the lead 16-14.

SMSU slowly built its lead going up by as many as 15 twice, the first time at 4:47 when Zager hit a pair of free throws and again at 0:22 when Nick Smith, who had a 19-point, 10-rebound double-double, hit the back end of a pair of free throws.

Wayne State’s Jordan Holdsworth got a second-chance basket with under a second on the clock, but the Mustangs took the 45-32 lead into the half.

“Last weekend Wayne State came back from two big deficits both nights,” Zager said. “We knew they would make their run, but we knew we had to make our own and answer back with a run of our own.”

And Wayne State did just that.

The Wildcats got hot early in the second, chipping away at the Mustang lead with 3-pointer after 3-pointer. Less than five minutes into the half, SMSU found their 13-point lead whittled down to four.

“They were down in the second half and turned it into a three-point game pretty quickly,” Bigler said. “They are always a dangerous team, especially when they get hot.”

But the Mustangs stemmed the rush and quickly turned it back around, hitting the next six points to put the lead back to nine.

“That’s what happens in the NSIC, it’s all about runs and you have to contain them. You have to keep your composure,” SMSU’s Jordan Miller said. “They found some spots in our zone defense that we had to correct. We went to a different defense. Our defense helped us out in the end.”

The Mustangs, who were red hot shooting in the first half, shooting over 66 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the free throw line, continued that streak in the second half.

“We were making easy buckets for each other,” Zager said. “That was the emphasis of the game. We were coming in and we wanted to get a lay-up or a shot off an assist.”

The Mustangs shot nearly 64 percent from the floor and over 82 percent from the free throw line in the second half.

Free throws were a major factor for SMSU to extend its lead, as they were in the double bonus with over nine minutes to play in the second half.

“A lot of it is trying to be organized. They run a variety of different zones defenses at you,” Bigler said. “It’s just the ability to ball-fake, let them scramble and make the right pass.

“You saw Jordan Miller. He only scored six points tonight, but he was outstanding tonight. Making his teammates better, that’s something that special players do and he was getting guys layups all night long.”

The Mustangs got the lead back to double digits at 10:59 on a layup by Zager, who set a team record going 10-for-10 from the field.

“I was watching my defender tonight and he was turning his head,” Zager said. “So I was able to get behind him and get some easy buckets.”

SMSU continued to build and broke through with their biggest lead at that point, going up 74-58 on another Zager basket.

Smith got his third blocked shot of the night at 5:20, setting the new SMSU record for career blocks with 120.

The Mustangs took the largest lead of the night with 2:19 left to play when Lavione West, who had 18 points, put down his third dunk of the night to make it 87-67.

“Both Lavione and Jordan, they know it’s crunch time. Their legacy is being written right now in how they finish,” Bigler said. “Both of them are pretty focused right now and are playing at a high level.”

Miller finished the night with 10 assists, which put him in a tie for second all-time with 304.

SMSU played ball control the final two minutes of the game and rolled to an 87-69 win over Wayne State.

The Mustangs will play host to Augustana College (S.D.) tonight at the R/A Facility. The Vikings are coming off of a loss to the University of Sioux Falls on Friday night. An SMSU win would give the two teams identical 13-7 NSIC records and could have an impact on post-season seeding.

“Augustana is a talented team. They’re shooting the basketball pretty well,” Bigler said. “It will be an all-out war all night long and we expect that. That’s what is fun about NSIC basketball.”