NSIC TOURNAMENT: Mustangs knock out Huskies, advance to NSIC Championship

Photo by Sam Thiel SMSU’s Ryan Bruggeman drives past a St. Cloud State University defender during their NSIC Tournament semifinal game on Monday. The Mustangs defeated the Huskies 73-66 to advance to the NSIC Championship game today.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Just like its previous NSIC Tournament games before them, the Southwest Minnesota State University men’s basketball team knew that Monday’s semifinal matchup against the St. Cloud State University Huskies wasn’t going to come without a hard-nosed fight and a down-to-the-wire finish.

And just as they did in both games, the Mustangs stood their ground, played tough and ended up walking away with a win.

SMSU continued its red-hot run with yet another thrilling performance, this time taking down the Huskies 73-66 to advance to its second consecutive NSIC Championship game.

SMSU coach Brad Bigler said the game lived up to the expectations surrounding it and it took a group effort to come out on top.

“Coming in, we knew it was going to be a battle and it lived up to all the hype,” Bigler said. “St. Cloud came ready to play and it took one of our best efforts to come out with the win.”

It was a tight battle to start, as SMSU held a slim 5-4 lead in the game’s opening minutes before the Mustangs went on a 6-2 run to go up 11-6 with 15 minutes left in the first half. Both teams would trade points over the next several possessions with SMSU maintaining an eight-point lead at 16-8, but the Huskies answered with a 6-0 run of their own to bring the deficit to just two at 16-14 with 10:21 left.

A 3-pointer from Ryan Bruggeman pushed the Mustangs’ advantage to five points, and SMSU wouldn’t allow the deficit to dip below three points over the next several minutes. Bruggeman would then connect on a running jumper to put SMSU up seven at 30-23 with 4:35 remaining before Turner Moen got a layup to go on the Mustangs’ next possession to give themselves their largest lead of the game thus far at 32-25 with two minutes to go.

SMSU would continue to maintain its aggressive mindset on the offensive side, as Bruggeman drilled a 3-pointer from the wing to give the Mustangs their first double-digit lead at 39-29 with 20 seconds left before taking a 39-31 lead heading into the locker rooms.

The Mustangs also saw a pair of milestones reached in the first half. Carter Kirk passed the single-season record for rebounds previously set at 313 by Juan Mitchell in 1986-87 while Bruggeman set the single-season record for assists with his 186th dime of the year, passing the former mark held by Marques Pena in 2000-01. Bruggeman now has 187 assists while Kirk has 323 rebounds on the season.

In the second half, it was the Huskies who got into the groove offensively, as SCSU used an 11-2 run to start the final frame and take a 42-41 lead with 16:12 left. SMSU would respond, however, as it got a 3-pointer from Taylor Schafer to take the lead back before the Mustangs went on a small spurt to take a 48-43 lead.

The pace started to pick up from both sides over the next several minutes before Bruggeman connected on a turnaround jumper to give SMSU a 52-45 advantage with 10 minutes to go. The Huskies stayed within striking distance, getting a 3-pointer and a layup to cut the deficit to six at 56-50 with eight minutes to go before connecting on another long distance shot to bring it to a three-point game at 62-59 with 4:41 left.

SMSU would answer with a basket to go up five, but SCSU countered with another 3-pointer to cut it to two at 64-62 with 2:30 left. After Bruggeman found Kirk for a wide open dunk, the Huskies answered again to make it 66-64 with a minute to go. On SMSU’s following possession, the ball worked its way around the perimeter and eventually found the hands of Michael Lee, who buried the 3-pointer – his only attempt from long distance on the game – to push the Mustangs lead to 69-64 with 40 seconds remaining.

The Mustangs then got a couple of key turnovers and rebounds on defense in the closing seconds before sealing the game at the free-throw line.

Bruggeman finished the game with 28 points, five rebounds and six assists while Kirk added 19 points and 12 rebounds and Moen chipped in 12 points.

Bigler said their key on offense was their ability to create spacing and attack the paint early in their trips down the floor.

“We just tried to keep it simple and create spacing, have hard drives to the basket and make them defend the paint early in the possession,” Bigler said. “And then we were able to finish through some contact and make some threes.”

The Mustangs forced eight SCSU turnovers while outrebounding the Huskies 35-20 on the night, including a 23-18 advantage on defensive boards.

Bruggeman said their main message throughout the game on defense was sticking together and showing toughness, especially on the glass.

“They’re a really good offensive team and we just had to stick together and be tough,” Bruggeman said. “A couple of guys came up with some big defensive rebounds and that’s what it really takes to win at this point of the year; you can score all you want, but those stops are really what separates you.”

SMSU (24-7) will face the No. 1 seed in the North bracket in Northern State University, who knocked off Minnesota State University, Mankato on a game-winning shot earlier in the afternoon. This is the third meeting between the Mustangs and Wolves, with each team earning a victory on the road. Tip-off for today’s final will be at 5 p.m. at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls.

Just like both of their previous matchups this season have gone, Bigler knows it’s going to take a strong defensive performance to gain the upper hand and take the championship.

We’re going to have to have a great defensive effort if we’re going to give ourselves a chance. Our discipline on defending shooters, and Carter is going to have to have one of the better defensive performances of the year like he did the second time we played them,” Bigler said. “It’ll be another group effort and it’s one of those moments when you get to the championship game, anything can happen. The game will go by fast and it’ll be a matter of a couple of swings here and there that’ll give the team that edge to win.”