Dragons advance past Mustang men

A 15-0 run late in the second half propelled Minnesota State-Moorhead to an 87-78 win over Southwest Minnesota State Wednesday night in a first-round game of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference/Sanford Health Men’s Basketball Tournament held in Moorhead.

The Dragons (19-10 overall), who are the No. 4 seed in the NSIC North Division, fell behind 59-53 with just over nine minutes left in the game before mounting its big run and pulling ahead by nine with five minutes, 23 seconds remaining. The Mustangs, who are the fifth seed in the NSIC South, got to within four points twice in the final 3:18, but the MSU-Moorhead sealed the game at the line.

The Dragons finished the game 29-for-33 from the free throw line, including 27-for-29 in the second half.

“Their ability to get into the bonus early in the second half put a lot of pressure on us because that took away our ability to put pressure on them on the defensive end. They were able to get to the line a lot,” SMSU head coach Brad Bigler said.

MSU-Moorhead advances to play Minnesota State-Mankato, the top seed in the NSIC South, Saturday at the Taylor Center in Mankato.

SMSU, which won the NSIC tournament championship a season ago, finishes the year with a 16-14 overall record after losing for the third time in its last four games.

Six-foot-8 senior forward Alex Novak had a huge game for the Dragons, recording 20 points and 17 rebounds. All five MSU-Moorhead starters scored in double figures. Sophomore guard Jordan Riewer, who made all 13 of his free throw attempts, led the way with 21 points.

The Mustangs also got a double-double from their big man, as center Nick Smith posted 18 points and 12 rebounds. Vinard Birch added 15 points and five boards, senior guard Jordan Miller had 13 points, six assists and four steals, and senior forward Lavione West added 10 points.

The Mustangs fell behind early before going on a 10-0 run that was capped by a three-point play by Matt Zager to put his team up 13-7. The Dragons later rallied with a 13-2 run to go up 23-20 and the teams exchanged leads several times the rest of the way before SMSU went into halftime up 36-33.

“That’s the thing with playoff basketball, you see it a lot with a team like Moorhead that has the ability to make the 3-point shot, they’re going to go on runs,” Bigler said. “I thought we were physical on the basketball in the first half and turned them over more than their used to, which allowed us to capitalize in transition.”

The biggest run was the 15-0 run the Dragons put together in the second half to take control of momentum before they sealed the game at the line.

MSUM shot 50 percent for the game and had a 41-31 rebounding edge. The Mustangs shot 43 percent but went just 4 of 16 from the 3-point line.

It was an emotional season for the Mustangs and their head coach, who lost his young son, Drake, in a car accident caused by a drunk driver over the summer. SMSU was picked second in the NSIC preseason polls, but had a lot to deal with before and during the season.

“I think this year was a year of many different types of distractions with myself, with some injuries throughout the year and a variety of other things that happened throughout the year where we had to face adversity, such as the inability to win close ballgames,” Bigler said. “So we’ve faced a lot of adversity this year, and to think that we were able to overcome a lot of it and were still in the mix with two weeks left and being ranked 10th in the region to be able to make an NCAA tournament bid, I think that shows you the fight that these guys had. We still had a successful season and these guys have nothing to hang their heads about. It was a good year. It wasn’t a great year, it was a good year, and hopefully we can learn from our mistakes this year and come ready to bounce back next year.”