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Eric Peterson, Published February 27 2013

Dragons men defeat Mustangs in first round of NSIC tournament

MOORHEAD – Minnesota State Moorhead held an efficient offense scoreless for more than five minutes Wednesday night at Alex Nemzek Fieldhouse.

That stretch of stinginess helped the Dragons rally for an 87-78 victory against Southwest Minnesota State in the first round of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference men’s basketball tournament before 1,127 fans.

“That was the deal,” Dragons head coach Chad Walthall said. “They’ve got some players that can score. … I thought we really were just in tune the whole game on both ends. If every guy is not engaged, you’re not winning that game against that team. They are a very, very good basketball team.”

The Mustangs ranked second in the NSIC in team field-goal percentage at 49 percent.

The Dragons (19-10) play at 2 p.m. Saturday at Minnesota State-Mankato in the NSIC quarterfinals. MSU-Mankato is the top seed from the South Division.

“We played together,” said Dragons senior Alex Novak, who had 20 points and 17 rebounds against the Mustangs. “I think we played 40 minutes for the most part.”

MSUM’s senior big men played big in his final game at Alex Nemzek Fieldhouse. The 6-foot-8 Novak teamed with 6-foot-7 senior post Eric Olson, who scored a career-high 13 points on 6-for-8 shooting. Olson also grabbed seven rebounds and blocked two shots. Novak blocked two shots, too.

“We were bigger than them in the post … and with Eric and I, we knew we had to have big games,” Novak said. “(Olson) had a great game. We really needed his points.”

Southwest Minnesota State took a 59-53 lead after junior Matt Zager scored on a drive to the basket with 9 minutes, 54 seconds remaining in the second half. That’s when the MSUM defense stiffened.

The Dragons scored the next 15 points. Olson scored five points during that stretch, including two baskets in the post. Freshman guard Tyler Vaughan capped the run with a 3-pointer from the right wing that gave MSUM a 68-59 lead with 5:25 remaining.

“We knew we had to score points against this team, because they are the best offensive team in the league,” Walthall said of the Mustangs.

Southwest Minnesota State ended its more-than-five-minute scoring dry spell after junior guard Vinard Birch scored on a drive to the basket. That cut the Dragons lead to 68-61 with 4:10 remaining.

The Dragons iced the game from the foul line down the stretch. They sank their final 12 free throws. MSUM shot 88 percent (29 of 33) from the free-throw line for the game. Novak was 8-for-10 from the foul line.

“I know that’s weird, isn’t it?” cracked Novak, who was shooting 61 percent from the foul line entering Wednesday. “I think after Christmas I’ve been shooting pretty well. Before Christmas, I was garbage.”

Walthall said it was nice to see Novak and the rest of the team excel on free throws.

“That is the perfect way for Alex to end his career at home, because I know how hard he has worked on his free throws,” Walthall said.

The Dragons got 83 of their 87 points from their starters. MSUM freshman Brady Wohler missed the game with an ankle injury. Four of the MSUM starters played at least 34 minutes.

SMSU (16-14): Barnes 2-5 0-0 4, Birch 6-11 3-3 15, Miller 5-19 1-2 13, Zager 3-5 2-3 9, Smith 5-10 8-9 18, Giddings 3-8 2-3 9, West 5-10 0-0 10, Peschong 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-68 16-20 78.

MSUM (19-10): Tucker 4-11 2-2 11, Riewer 4-10 13-13 21, Vaughan 5-10 4-4 18, Olson 6-8 1-2 13, Novak 6-12 8-10 20, Holt 1-1 0-0 3, Figini 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 26-52 29-33 87.

Half: SMSU 36, MSUM 33. 3-point goals: SMSU 4-16 (Vinard 0-1, Miller 2-10, Zager 1-1, Giddings 1-4), MSUM 6-18 (Tucker 1-6, Riewer 0-3, Vaughan 4-8, Holt 1-1). Total fouls: SMSU 21, MSUM 16. Technical foul: SMSU bench. Rebounds: SMSU 31 (Smith 12), MSUM 41 (Novak 17). Assists: SMSU 16 (Barnes 6, Miller 6), MSUM 16 (Riewer 7). Steals: SMSU 11 (Miller 4), MSUM 6 (Novak 2). Turnovers: SMSU 9 (Miller 3, Smith 3), MSUM 16 (Riewer 6). A-1,127.

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

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