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Eric Peterson, Published February 21 2012

Peterson: Dragons on brink of overdue conference title

Moorhead - The last time Minnesota State Moorhead won a men’s basketball league championship, the school and the conference had different names.

The Forum article read “Moorhead State coasted to an easy 100-71 Northern Intercollegiate Conference men’s basketball men’s basketball victory over Southwest State Saturday night.”

That game was played on Feb. 27, 1982, in Marshall, Minn., a victory that gave the Dragons a share of the then NIC championship with Minnesota-Duluth.

Thirty years later, the Dragons are in position to end that title drought.

“I want our program to embrace the moment,” said MSUM head coach Chad Walthall, who is in his second year.

Even though MSUM is a half-game behind St. Cloud State for first place in the NSIC, the Dragons control their own fate. Two wins at Alex Nemzek Fieldhouse this weekend – against Augustana and Wayne State – and the team clinches at least a share of the league crown.

A split and conference title chances get dicey for the Dragons.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Dragons senior Xavier Reed. “It’s definitely been a battle. … We will never forget when we were at the bottom of the league and not so good.”

Reed and fellow seniors like Jake Driscoll and Andrew VanHavermaet, in particular, have been through the lean times. All three started games as redshirt freshmen in 2008-09. The Dragons went 9-16 that season and 6-14 in the league. That was good for 10th place in the 14-team NSIC. The next season, MSUM went 10-17 and 7-13 in the NSIC, good for 11th place in the conference.

“I don’t know if we thought we ever had a chance to be competing at the top of the league,” said VanHavermaet, who is from Hawley, Minn.

Walthall is happy for all six seniors on his roster, including starting guards Charlie Chapman and DJ Hamilton. Chapman and Hamilton have been with the program two years after transferring prior to last season.

Reed, VanHavermaet and Driscoll have sacrificed minutes and points to put this team in position to win a league title. Reed and Driscoll (who has more than 1,000 career points) haven’t started a game this season. VanHavermaet didn’t crack the starting lineup until about midway through the NSIC season.

“There are guys who have put their individual egos aside for team ego,” Walthall said. “Without that, we are not in this position.”

A weekend sweep would also give the Dragons (18-6, 14-6 NSIC) their first 20-win season since that historic 1981-82 campaign. The team ended with 24-7 record that year and also advanced to the NAIA national tournament.

“To bring some success back to MSUM would be great, to leave a footprint,” VanHavermaet said. “We’re excited about what the possibilities are … but right now we are excited about Friday night’s game.”

Win or lose this weekend, Walthall feels this group has already done much for the program.

“They’ve accomplished a culture change,” Walthall said. “At some point the program had to do that. … I do believe the culture has changed.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Eric Peterson at (701) 241-5513.

Peterson’s blog can be found at peterson.areavoices.com