South. West. Southwest. Southwest State. Southwest Minnesota State. You know, the NSIC men's basketball playoff champion. Southwest State.
Oh! OK, I get it now. Southwest State. But, they what? They...champion...what?
Men's basketball playoff champion!? I did not see that coming. Picked for 8th place in the pre-season coach's poll, the Mustangs won 9 of 10 down the stretch to sneak into the #3, er, ah, make that #2 seed in the NSIC. But the #2 seemed a little bit tainted. I mean, they were really #3 but bumped up a slot due to the penalties to Winona State that dropped the Warriors from #1 to #6.
Not to mention that in a topsy turvy NSIC race, Bemidji State and Moorhead State were making moves at the same time as Southwest State. Bemidji won 10 of 12 from the middle of January to steal the #1 seed, and Moorhead won 5 in a row in the 1st 2 weeks of February to move up in the ranks.
So I totally missed South...ah, who? But indeed they won 9 of 10 including wins at Mankato State and St. Cloud State and there they were, #2. But, it's gotta be said, nobody with anywhere near a 1st team all-conference resume. Juniors Jordan Miller and Nick Smith are the leading scorers with 14 and 12 ppg. Smith gets 5 rebounds and sophomore Vinard Birch 3 assists. But, wait, here's something. Smith is #3 with 1.6 blocks, and Birch is #4 in assist-turnover ratio, also at 1.6.
But nobody is indispensible, or so it seems. Miller leads the team in minutes at 28 per game, ranked just #30 in the conference.
But there it is. #2. And with that comes a winnable 1st round game vs. #7 UMD at home, and indeed a 99-92 win. UMD led 81-77 with 6:22 remaining but a 7-0 run gave SMSU a lead that it never relinquished. Matt Zager and Lavione West scored career-highs of 21 and 19 points.
SMSU was expected to bow out gracefully in round 2 against #1/#6 Winona State, who had already beaten the Mustangs twice. But you know what they say, and Southwest prevailed in a 69-64 shocker. The Mustangs again trailed for long parts of the game, but this time they took the lead for good at 41-40 with 14 minutes to go. West scored 17 points including 7-of-7 FTs. Miller and Smith added 13 and 11.
So, in today's final SMSU faced Moorhead State, another team whom the Mustangs had failed to defeat during the regular season. No matter. Trailing 59-48 with 10 minutes remaining, Southwest went on a 24-4 rampage which it extended to 40-18 over 16 minutes. Smith scored 13 points with 6 boards during the big run, en route to his 1st career double-double with 21 points and 10 boards. West, named tournament MVP, added 16 points and 5 boards.
NCAA D2 Pairings
The NCAA D2 pairings were announced tonight. 4 Minnesota men's teams advance, though they'll be down to 2 lickity split. Southwest State will face Moorhead again and Bemidji will play St. Cloud, both at Golden, CO. Augustana of the NSIC is in Golden as well, along with 3 teams from the Rocky Mountain Conference. Colorado Mines is the #1 seed and host for this pod.
Winona State, for its part, ended up being treated like a #6 seed and not a #1 seed. They, in short, were left out despite winning the regular season NSIC title.
I'm picking 2 upsets with Moorhead and St. Cloud making it to the regional final, and St. Cloud to take it all.
And Among the Women
Well, you'll recall that schools outside of Minnesota dominated both the regular season and the playoffs among the NSIC women. And so it's a bit of a surprise that Minnesota teams Mankato State and UMD both got invited to the Wayne, NE, pod. #8 Mankato gets #1 and host and NSIC champion Wayne State, while #7 UMD gets #2 seed Metro State. These 2 have a very very tough row to hoe.