MEN’S BASKETBALL: Birch to the rescue

MARSHALL- Every team has at least one player they can go to for late-game situation and, on Friday night, Southwest Minnesota State’s Vinard Birch proved that he is that one of those guys for the Mustangs.

Birch drove the lane and sunk a layup with 2.2 seconds left to seal a 69-67 victory over Concordia-St. Paul.

Birch has put the Mustangs over the top in this situation before. He sank a shot at the buzzer to beat Minnesota State-Moorhead earlier in the season, something that wasn’t lost on Mustangs coach Brad Bigler.

“I think Vinard Birch is a guy that can create his own shot and get to the rim against pretty much everyone in the conference,” Bigler said. “I think, at the end of the game, you just simplify things. You get it in his hands and clear out and just let him go.”

With a little less than 5 minutes left, the Mustangs were down 64-60 before Birch and Shaun Condon hit a two and a 3-pointer, respectively, to give SMSU the lead as 3:26 remained, forcing a timeout from Concordia.

The Golden Bear’s Terez VanPelt answered with a 3-pointer of his own to put Concordia back on top 67-65 before another Birch basket tied the game at 67-67 heading into the final minute.

Birch missed a jumper with 28 seconds left that was kept alive by Mitch Weg before Nick Smith was able to corral it, giving the Mustangs a second chance at the final shot.

Bigler took a timeout and everyone at the R/A Facility had a good idea of where the ball was going to go.

“I knew, once I crossed him over, I saw a wide open lane and I just finished it,” Birch said.

The Golden Bears had one more opportunity with a little more that 2 seconds left. The Mustang defense double-teamed VanPelt just across half-court and he dumped it to Travon Mitchell, who got a clean look, but his shot clanged off the rim.

Seeing the open lane is something the senior all-time assists leader has grown accustomed to and what makes the play even more impressive is the fact that he appeared to have made at least part of the play in mid-air with his eyes closed.

Birch knows he wouldn’t be as successful in these late-game situations without the trust of his coaching staff and teammates.

“My team believes in me, so I just try and make a play for them,” Birch said. “They give me the ball and the coaches put me in the right situations. It set’s me up to help us win the game.”

Birch finished as the leading scorer for the Mustangs with 17 points to go with 14 more from Shaun Condon and 11 from Matt Zager. Smith was the leading rebounder, grabbing nine boards to go with his seven points on the night.

The Golden Bears entered with a record of 8-17 overall and 5-16 in conference play.

Bigler knows that his team may have overlooked them because of their record and it almost cost them.

“Sometimes, as coaches, we’re too hard on our guys and throughout the game, our expectations were probably a little too unrealistic,” Bigler said. “This is a team that is very competitive. They have guys that can knock down shots and we probably had the wrong mentality going in. We thought it was going to be an easy game. We made that mistake. Give Concordia credit for humbling us that first half.”

VanPelt finished the game with a game-high 21 points and five assists, while Mitchell had 14 and seven rebounds. Mike Yahnke finished with 12 points for Concordia.

Even in a loss, Golden Bears head coach Kelly Boe found some positives from his team out on the floor.

“We forced them to take tough shots a good chunk of the night and I thought both teams played hard,” Boe said. “When it comes to making a play in the last 2 minutes, Vinard is really good in that situation. He made a couple more good plays down the stretch tonight.”

With the win, the Mustangs moved into a position to qualify for the regional tournament thanks to a loss by Bemidji State at the hands of Minnesota-Duluth.

SMSU will try to further help its cause against Minnesota State at the R/A Facility in the regular season finale at 7 p.m. today.

Bigler knows that the No. 21-ranked Mavericks will be a tough challenge.

“We have to come out and score more points than we did tonight,” Bigler said. “They score 80 points a night and we’re going to have to match that. We also have to control the temp and make sure they play both ends of the floor and we have to rebound. They are the best rebounding team of the league and will shoot a lot of 3’s If we’re not ready, that’s going to hurt us also.”


SOUTHWEST MINNESOTA STATE (17-10 OVERALL, 14-7 NSIC): William Giddings 1-10 0-1 2, Vinard Birch 8-13 1-3 17, Mitch Weg 4-7 0-0 8, Shaun Condon 5-7 1-2 14, Joey Bartlett 1-3 0-0 2, Matt Zager 5-6 0-0 11, Cole Martin 3-6 0-0 8, Nick Smith 2-4 3-4 7. TOTALS: 29-56 (52%) 5-10 (50%) 69.

CONCORDIA-ST. PAUL (8-17 OVERALL, 5-16 NSIC): Clay Olstad 0-1 0-0 0, Keith Crockett 2-7 0-0 5, Travon Mitchell 5-16 0-0 14, Cordell Smith 3-9 2-2 8, Terez VanPelt 8-18 2-2 21, Chris Halvorsen 1-1 0-2 2, Shea Mandli 2-4 1-1 5, Mike Yahnke 5-8 2-3 12. TOTALS: 26-64 (41%) 7-10 (70%) 67.

HALFTIME: Southwest Minnesota State 33, Concordia University 33. 3-POINT FIELD GOALS: Concordia University 8-17 (Mitchell 4, VanPelt 3, Crockett); Southwest Minnesota State 6-18 (Condon 3, Birch 1, Condon 1). REBOUNDS: Concordia University 33 (Mitchell 7); Southwest Minnesota State 36 (Smith 9). TOTAL FOULS (FOULED OUT): Concordia University 14 (none); Southwest Minnesota State 14 (none). TECHNICAL FOULS: None. ASSISTS: Concordia University 11 (Van Pelt 5); Southwest Minnesota State 9 (Birch 5). STEALS: Concordia University 5 (Crockett, Smith 2); Southwest Minnesota State 4 (Birch 3). BLOCKED SHOTS: Concordia University 3 (Mitchell, VanPelt, Mandli); Southwest Minnesota State 6 (Smith 4). TURNOVERS: Concordia University 6; Southwest Minnesota State 11.