BY TURNER BLAUFUSS
For the first time since the 1981-82 season, the Dragon men are Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference North Division champs.
The Dragons closed out the regular season with a 30-point victory against Minot State University and a one-point overtime thriller against University of Mary (N.D.) in the weekend’s home stand.
The Dragons are rolling, and MSUM coach Chad Walthall is anxious for the postseason where his squad will be the No. 1 seed.
“I’m so proud of our guys,” Walthall said. “I’ll get a lot of chances to do this as a coach, but you don’t get many as a player, so I’m proud of them.”
MSUM came out hot against Minot State, dominated the entire game and put the clamps down defensively. The Dragons received a balanced scoring effort with five players in double figures in the 85-55 rout of the Beavers.
“It was our best defensive performance of the year,” Walthall said. “We played with great purpose on that side of the ball”
The Friday night match-up saw Walthall on the bench without his shoes, as he was contributing to the Samaritan’s Feet Project: a nonprofit organization that provides shoes to kids who can’t afford their own.
“It was actually kind of comfortable. Once the game started I couldn’t tell the difference,” Walthall said. “The goal was to get 10 million kids shoes in 10 years, and this is the tenth year. There are a lot of people that aren’t aware of kids that don’t have their own shoes.”
MSUM came back the next night and faced off against the University of Mary. MSUM had trouble slowing down Mary’s efficient offense as the Marauders were snapping nets all game long, finishing just under 59 percent shooting from the field.
“It was unbelievable. For the most part I thought we guarded well, but they were just making everything,” Walthall said. “When you’ve got good players and they get feeling it, it’s tough to stop. My hats go off to Mary.”
The Dragons held an 83-79 lead with around a minute left in regulation, but the Marauders wouldn’t go away easily. Mary’s Damonta Henry nailed a baseline jumper to cut the lead to two, and the Marauders stole the inbound pass that led to a Chris Mason lay-up with around 30 seconds remaining to tie the game. The Dragons held for the last shot, but couldn’t get it to fall, sending the game into overtime.
Both teams went back and forth in overtime. After Mary’s Marc Musungayi sank one of two free throws, the Marauders led 94-92. MSUM called a time-out with 31 seconds remaining to set up a play.
Sophomore guard Tyler Vaughan dribbled to the top of the key and drove past his defender for a left-handed lay-in while drawing the foul, which set up the go-ahead free throw.
Vaughan, known around the NSIC as a sharp shooter, showed he’s made his game better rounded with the driving score to take the lead.
“(Vaughan) plays for the moments like this. Mary guarded up tight because they know he’s a great shooter, but Tyler showed he’s gotten better at putting the ball on the floor and finishing at the rim,” Walthall said.
The Marauders had time to win the game, but the red-hot Mason’s shot rattled out to give Mary their 19th loss of the season, and the Dragons came away with the 95-94 overtime victory.
“(University of Mary) has had a tough year. They’ve lost a lot of close ones, but they could’ve just mailed it in and they haven’t,” Walthall said. “They fought and played great. We beat a good basketball team, although their record doesn’t show it.”
The Dragons are hoping to have their captain Jordan Riewer back for the postseason and could use his veteran leadership in close games like the match against the Marauders.
“We hope to have (Riewer) back soon. He’ll get re-evaluated Monday, and we’ll go from there,” Walthall said. “You’re not going to replace Jordan Riewer with one guy, but collectively we have some guys who are stepping in and doing a good job.”
MSUM moves on to play at 7 p.m. on Wednesday when they host Concordia-St. Paul in the first round of the NSIC/Sanford Health Tournament.
MSUM finishes the regular season at 19-7 overall and 15-7 in conference play. The Dragons defeated the Golden Bears 100-85 earlier this season.