Feeling the rhythm

Stevens' career-high 27 points, five 3-pointers lead Mustangs past Warriors

Photo by Jake McNeill: Southwest Minnesota State forward Aeron Stevens shoots a corner 3-pointer in the second half of a mens basketball game against Winona State on Saturday night in Marshall. The Mustangs defeated the Warriors 72-62.

MARSHALL — True freshman Aeron Stevens set career-highs in points and 3-pointers made on Saturday night as the Southwest Minnesota State mens basketball team held off the Winona State Warriors for a 72-62 victory.

Stevens led all scorers on the night with 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting, surpassing his previous career-high of 26 he set the weekend before against UMary. Perhaps more impressive than just his scoring was his shooting touch on the night; prior to Saturday’s game, Stevens had never attempted more than three shots from beyond the arc and never made more than two. Against the Warriors, however, the 6-foot-7 forward transformed into a stretch 4, knocking down five of his eight 3-point attempts.

“I’ve honestly been working on it a lot this week with coach [Nick] Smith and once I got a couple to go in, I just kept shooting them and it felt good,” Stevens said. “I was open at first, and then it went in so I just kept shooting them.”

The Mustangs got off to a hot start, scoring on each of their first four possessions of the game. Phipps hit a layup on the Mustangs’ opening possession and then dished out a no-look pass from the post to Kyle Luedtke on the wing for a 3-pointer. Cofield then came up with a steal and banked the ball off the glass to a trailing Mason Lund, who finished the oop with a thunderous dunk, and Phipps hit another layup to give SMSU a quick 9-4 lead through the first 3:14 of play.

Unfortunately for the Mustangs, the Warriors continued to keep pace. SMSU attempted to turn up its tempo but proceeded to miss its first shots of the game on the next two possessions. Devon Fielding and Declan Dillon took advantage, hitting a 3-pointer and a layup on the next two possessions to tie up the game at 9-9.

After a mass substitution, the Mustangs seemed to have found their mojo again. Stevens spun into layups on each of the Mustangs’ next two trips down the court but the Warriors answered each time. After a Jakob Braaten layup, Fielding converted one of his own to give Winona State an 18-15 lead with 12:23 to play.

Braaten was another Mustang having a career night. Aside from his 10 points, his nine rebounds one-upped his previous career-high of eight that he most recently achieved last weekend against UMary. He nearly had his first career double-double, but Phipps just beat Braaten to a defensive rebound with about a minute remaining in the game.

“I said [to Phipps] if that was my one rebound, we’re going to have to talk,” Braaten said with a laugh, adding that he knew he had six rebounds at halftime but that the double-double wasn’t something he was focused on as much as getting the win. “We have big guys like Phipps, Aaron and Mason that are just kind of trying to delete the big guys on the other team and take them out of the play, so it kind of opened it up for the guards to come down and get the rebounds. I think we have some really good rebound guards, I mean, Me, Cliff [Cofield] and Mekhi [Shaw], we all crash pretty hard.”

Winona State finished the game with a 40-35 advantage on the boards, including a 14-7 advantage on the offensive glass. In addition to Braaten, Lund, Dunwa Omot and Stevens each grabbed six rebounds in the game while Brock Voigt led the Warriors with 11.

Omot and Stevens put SMSU back on top with a 3-pointer and a layup. Olumide Adelodun cut the deficit to just a point with a 3-pointer but, after a two-minute stalemate, Phipps found Lund and Luedtke for 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to give SMSU a 28-21 lead, prompting Winona State to call the first non-media timeout of the game.

The 30 seconds to talk it over did nothing to ease the Warriors’ offensive struggles. The Warriors didn’t score again until Adelodun knocked down a 3-pointer with 72 seconds remaining in the half, capping off an 8:20 scoring drought for Winona State during which the Mustangs scored 11 unanswered points and led by as many as 12.

“I think we all just kind of buy into our defense,” Braaten said of the Mustangs’ defense at the end of the half. “Bigler preaches eyes on the ball, tips n the ball, chasing the ball, all that and just communicating through ball screens and knowing when we’re going to switch. I think Cliff, Dunwa, Mekhi and Phipps, all of them did a really great job on them tonight.”

Lund and Omot each had a pair of steals for the Mustangs on the defensive end while Phipps finished with three blocks.

As a team, SMSU held the Warriors to 37% shooting from the field and 29% from 3. They also held reigning NSIC player of the week Connor Dillon to 17 points on 5-of-14 shooting. The Mustangs, meanwhile, shot 45% from the field and 36% from deep.

Connor Drew followed up Adelodun’s 3-pointer with a layup but Stevens knocked down a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Mustangs into the locker room with a 36-26 lead at the break.

Coming out of halftime, the Warriors looked hungry and motivated to get back into the game. Fielding hit a 3-pointer, Brock Voigt threw down a dunk after a Dillon steal and Dillon converted a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 2 points just over a minute into the half.

Over the next four minutes, the Warriors inched closer before the second of Voigt’s three second-half dunks and a Dillon 3-pointer tied the game at 41-41. Voigt then hit another layup to give the Warriors a 41-43 lead with 14:16 remaining, their first lead since the first eight minutes of the first half.

The two teams traded baskets, neither leading by more than one possession, until the Mustangs went on an 8-2 run, featuring 5 points from Stevens, to claim a 57-50 lead.

From there, the Warriors remained close but were never able to get back within striking distance. They didn’t trail by double digits again until Braaten made a pair of free throws after an intentional foul with 22 seconds left but they never came any closer than 4 points.

Cofield led the Mustangs with five assists without a turnover while Pipps finished with three assists and one turnover.

Saturday’s win came on the heels of a 68-58 home loss to No. 1/2 Minnesota State on Friday. Malik and Kyreese Willingham each scored 17 points for the Mavericks while Phipps led the Mustangs with 23 points.

“Mankato is a tough team and they got us last night, but you’ve just got to move on,” Stevens, who was held to 6 points in the game, said. “You can’t let that game beat you twice. We just came in with a new mindset, new energy for Saturday and tried to get it done and we did.”

SMSU improves to 13-9 overall and their 10-6 conference record keeps them in fifth place in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, 2.5 games back of Minnesota Duluth and one game ahead of Augustana. The Mustangs will get a crack at the UMD Bulldogs on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Duluth before taking on Concordia-St. Paul on Saturday at 5:30 p.m.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.38/week.

Subscribe Today