MARSHALL - After drilling a 3-pointer from the top of the key, 6-foot-9 All-American center Clayton Vette let out a primal scream as he backed his way down the court, his 25th-ranked Winona State Warriors up on Southwest Minnesota State 65-54.
The yell echoed through SMSU's R/A Facility as Saturday's rowdy "Hawaiian Night" crowd, over 3,000 strong, took a collective punch to the gut and fell dead silent. There were still five minutes, 11 seconds left on the clock, but the Warriors were in firm control. The game was effectively over, and everyone could sense it.
Beaten up, exhausted and outplayed, the Mustangs saw their season-high three-game winning streak come to an end as Winona State ripped away a 75-60 victory in a contest in which the Warriors never trailed for a single second.
After addressing his team in the locker room, SMSU head coach Brad Bigler emerged and gave high praise to the Warriors after they held his Mustangs, the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference's top shooting team at 49 percent, to a season-low 33.9 percent on Saturday.
"I thought tonight Winona ... I thought they big-boyed us," Bigler said. "I thought they were bigger, stronger, faster, and just outplayed us in every aspect of the game.
"I will easily go on record and say that was by far the best team performance that's went up against us in the last two years, Division I included. That was the best performance that we've faced, and I give them a lot of credit. They were ready to go, they were organized, they took us out of a lot of things and we have a long ways to go."
Winona State (75)
Kellen Taylor 2-3 2-2 6, Xavier Humphrey 4-8 3-4 12, Caleb Palkert 1-4 0-0 2, Taylor Cameron 5-10 0-3 10, Clayton Vette 9-13 6-7 26, Grant Johnson 7-12 0-0 14, Jordan Fischer 2-6 0-0 5. Totals 30-59 11-16 75. 3-pointers 4-14 (Vette 2-2, Fischer 1-4, Humphrey 1-3) Rebounds 39 (Vette 9, Fischer 6, Johnson 5, Cameron 5) Assists 11 (Cameron 5) Steals 6 Blocks 7 (Palkert 3) Turnovers 9 Total Fouls 14.
Tramel Barnes 2-10 0-0 4, Vinard Birch 3-7 6-6 12, Jordan Miller 6-14 2-2 17, Matt Zager 2-6 2-2 7, Nick Smith 2-7 2-2 6, William Giddings 1-4 0-1 3, Lavione West 3-7 5-5 11. Totals 19-56 17-18 60. 3-pointers 5-13 (Miller 3-8, Zager 1-3, Giddings 1-2) Rebounds 30 (Miller 8, Smith 6, Zager 5) Assists 12 (Barnes 4, Birch 3) Steals 4 Blocks 3 Turnovers 10 Total Fouls 13.
Halftime Score: Winona State 37, SMSU 30.
Vette had a big hand in helping WSU (18-3 overall, 12-2 NSIC) earn that sterling review, along with their 12th straight victory and their 18th consecutive regular season win over SMSU (11-10, 8-6). He scored a game-high 26 points on 7-for-12 shooting, including 2-for-2 from 3-point range, grabbed a game-high nine rebounds and had two of the Warriors' seven blocked shots. His size, strength and length, along with that of his teammates, punished the Mustangs on offense and stonewalled SMSU at the rim on defense throughout the game.
Winona State set the tone from the start and grabbed a 6-0 lead after their first three possessions after a jumper by 6-7 guard Kellen Taylor. SMSU tied the game at 12 after a layup by center Nick Smith, and later tied it again at 17 after a pair of free throws by forward Lavione West midway through the half, but that was the final time the Mustangs would pull even with the Warriors.
Vette scored 13 points in the first half to lead his team to a 37-30 advantage at the break. WSU held a 12-0 edge on fast break points in the half an 11-0 edge in points off turnovers.
In the second half, Winona State wasn't able to get out and run as much, but was no less efficient on offense as it worked through its half-court sets. With scoring threats all over the court, the Warriors managed to maintain a lead between 7-11 points through much of the half.
SMSU mounted a 9-0 run midway through the half, getting layups from guards Vinard Birch and Jordan Miller, and later a 3-pointer by Miller with 10:33 left in the game to cut the WSU to 52-50. The Warriors responded with an 8-0 run of their own to push the lead back to double figures and got big baskets from Vette and guard Grant Johnson down the stretch, never allowing the Mustangs to get any closer than eight points the rest of the way.
Johnson, a 6-5 senior guard, wasn't eligible to play in games or travel with the team until Jan. 12, and didn't face the Mustangs when Winona State earned a 91-83 overtime win over SMSU on Jan. 4. He was sitting out due to a transfer violation that nullified 13 of WSU's NSIC games last season. Saturday, in just his fifth game of the year, he knocked down seven of 12 shot attempts on his way to 14 points, combining with Vette to squash the Mustangs' hope for a comeback as the second half ticked away.
"As you saw tonight, he has the ability to create his own shot," Bigler said of Johnson. "He made a couple of big shots there, he's a talented player, but honestly, it was their big lineup that really caused us problems. They were just bigger, stronger, and honestly, they were tougher tonight."
WSU's Caleb Palkert, a 6-9 senior forward, scored just two points Saturday, but had three blocks and played a part in the Warriors steadfast defensive effort in the paint. He and the other WSU big men stifled Smith, SMSU's top low-post scoring threat, all game and held him to just six points on 2-for-7 shooting. The Warriors also prevented the SMSU perimeter players from getting good looks going to the rim.
SMSU thrives when its guards get action to the rim and either finish at the basket or dish to teammates for wide-open looks. That's been the recipe that has helped the Mustangs finish with two games in which they've shot over 60 percent from the field this season. But it wasn't working on Saturday.
"I think we probably could have been a little more unselfish," Bigler said. "I thought we were driving into traffic and really trying to force things. Making that extra pass, I didn't think we were very good at that tonight."
Miller led SMSU with 17 points and eight rebounds. Birch added 12 points, while West scored 11 points off the bench.
Sitting alone in eighth place in the NSIC standings, the Mustangs will look to make up some ground on the top teams next weekend as they take to the road to play Bemidji State (7-7, 9-9) Friday and Minnesota-Crookston (0-14, 3-15) Saturday.