Tonight's Central Region final between Mankato State and Winona reminds me of that historic game of 2006. Minnesota's state colleges (Mankato, St. Cloud, Winona, etc.) had never made much noise in the post-season, paired as they were with the Dakotas (North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota, South Dakota State) in the D2 region. But then the Dakotas upped and left D2 for the greener pastures of D1, and for Minnesota's state colleges it's been a great opportunity and one they've grabbed with both hands.
Winona had done well enough, winning 2 straight regular season Northern Sun titles and 2 of 7 NSIC post-season titles going back to 1999. But now, in North Central Region play at Mankato, the Mavericks led by 16 points with just 8 minutes to play when Winona started a furious rally. Inside of 20 seconds, forward David Zellman stole the ball and drove for the winning basket. Winona won 74-71, and then proceeded to go all the way to the national title. They returned to the D2 final in 2007, only to lose on a last-second turnover of their own, but then the Warriors won a 2nd national title in 2008.
Now, expectations are that the NSIC champion will be a contender for the national title or, minimally, the Final Four on a regular basis. St. Cloud got there maybe 3 years ago? Tonight's winner advances to the Elite Eight and 3 more wins will bring the NSIC another national title.
So who will it be? Winona led 32-31 at the half as each team led by 5 at 1 time or another (Winona 7-2 and Mankato 20-15). A Cameron Taylor jumper at :02 gave Winona the lead
The rivals traded runs in the 2nd half. Winona went ahead 44-39 and 46-40. Mankato ripped off a 9-0 run to lead 49-46 just inside of 10 minutes, and it led 56-51 inside of 7 minutes and 59-55 inside of 4-and-a-half. But the missed FT started to mount up as Assem Marei made a pair, then missed 4-of-6, then made another pair, and another to give the Mavs a 64-61 lead at :42. But a Xavier Humphrey 2 + 1 at :26 tied it up and neither team could score in regulation.
OT! Neither team led by more than 2 as Clayton Vette returned the favor by missing 3-of4 FT in OT. But Kellen Taylor hit a 3 for a 72-71 Winona lead at 1:21. Then, after a Gage Wooten offensive board + 2 FT gave the lead back to the Mavs, Grant Johnson hit a bucket at :21. After Connor O'Brien missed a 2, Humphrey it pair of throws to make it 76-73. A Zach Monaghan 3 missed at the buzzer.
Marei and Vette, the 2 posts, were spectacular except at the line. Marei scored 21 with 8 boards and 3 blocks. Vette scored 22 with 6 boards and 4 assists including Taylor's 3 at 1:21. Taylor Cameron added 15 with 8 boards, 3 assists and 2 blocks for Winona, Jarvis Williams scored 15 with 3 assists for Mankato.
A worthy successor to that 2006 classic and to all the years of Mankato-Winona clashes since then. Coaches Matt Marganthaler and Mike Leaf have faced one another all these years, and I'm sure games like this are getting old...for one of them.