MOORHEAD — Minnesota State Moorhead head coach Chad Walthall liked the version of Gavin Baumgartner he saw Saturday night at Alex Nemzek Fieldhouse.
The sophomore guard poured in a game-high 26 points to help spark the Dragons to an 81-74 victory against Northern State in Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference men's basketball, the league-opening game for both teams.
"He's got to be aggressive. He's a terrific player," Walthall said. "He's very unselfish by nature, but he's our starting 2-guard and he needs to shoot it when he's got a chance."
The Dragons (5-2, 1-0 NSIC) have won five consecutive games, while Northern State (4-3, 0-1) had its four-game winning streak snapped. Wolves head coach Saul Phillips was making a homecoming of sorts to the Fargo-Moorhead area. Phillips was the head coach at North Dakota State from 2007-2014.
"Once the game started it was just the game," said Phillips, who was the head coach at Ohio University from 2014-2019. "We've got a lot of really, really strong ties here and there's really a lot of good people up here. One of the big perks of coming back to Northern State is we got to make some reconnections. I would rather reconnect after a win though."
Baumgartner scored four points during a key 6-0 surge late in the second half. The 6-foot-4 guard started the rally as he banked in a short runner in the lane to give the Dragons a 67-62 lead with 3 minutes, 35 seconds remaining. Baumgartner added a two-handed dunk on a breakaway that gave MSUM a 71-62 lead with 1:18 to play.
"We need him to be very good all year," Walthall said of Baumgartner.
"I thought their guards made some very good plays down the stretch," Phillips added.
The Dragons made 10 of 10 free throws in the final minute to prevent a Northern State comeback. Sophomore guard Bryce Irsfeld made six of those late foul shots and Baumgartner added the other four. Irsfeld finished with 19 points, including 10-for-10 shooting from the foul line.
"Northern and us have had a rivalry for a long time so It's always fun, and I know Saul and those guys are going to be really good," Walthall said. "I think both our teams are figuring it out as we go. We're not a complete team yet."
Northern State took a 48-47 lead after a Parker Fox 3-point play with 14:24 to play in the second half. The Dragons countered with eight unanswered points to surge into the lead for good. Baumgartner capped that rally with a baseline jumper that gave MSUM a 55-48 lead with 11:14 to play.
"I've been pretty confident in my shot. I've got to keep on looking for it," Baumgartner said. "It's a great win against a good program."
Baumgartner started strong, scoring 13 points on 5-for-9 shooting from the field including three 3-pointers. He sank a 3-pointer from the top of the key that gave MSUM a 34-33 lead with 1:48 to play in the first half. The Dragons shot 54% (15 of 28) from the floor in the first half.
Mason Stark countered with a drive and basket that gave the Wolves a 35-34 lead with 1:20 to play until halftime, a lead Northern State carried into the break. Gabe King scored 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the floor in the first 20 minutes to lead the Wolves. Northern State led by as many as seven points in the opening half. King finished with a team-high 18 points.
The Dragons scored 47 points in the second half to rally for victory. They shot 55% (12 of 22) from the floor in the final 20 minutes. Phillips thought MSUM also showed grit to go along with that efficient shooting.
"I thought the narrative of the game was they just got more 50-50 balls than we did. That's a hungry team that we played," Phillips said. "They played well, they're well-coached. ... I think it's two pretty good teams. We're still growing a little bit."
NSU (4-3, 0-1 NSIC): Fox 7-13 3-4 17, Chatman 5-11 0-0 10, Stark 5-11 0-0 11, Kallman 3-9 1-2 8, King 7-11 2-3 18, Belka 1-6 1-2 3, Dahl 2-5 2-3 7, Dominovic 0-2 0-0 0, Robinson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-68 9-14 74.
MSUM (5-2, 1-0): Zimmer 3-9 3-5 9, Williams 4-6 0-2 8, Sevlie 0-1 0-0 0, Irsfeld 4-8 10-10 19, Baumgartner 8-13 7-7 26, Hanson 0-1 0-1 0, Beeninga 4-7 2-2 11, Sem 3-4 0-0 6, Bergh 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 27-50 22-27 81.
Half: NSU 35, MSUM 34. 3-point goals: NSU 5-21 (Fox 0-1, Chatman 0-2, Stark 1-4, Kallman 1-5, King 2-2, Belka 0-2, Dahl 1-4, Dominovic 0-1), MSUM 5-10 (Irsfeld 1-2, Baumgartner 3-5, Hanson 0-1, Beeninga 1-2). Total fouls: NSU 21, MSUM 15. Fouled out: Kallman. Rebounds: NSU 27 (Fox 8, Kallman 8), MSUM 38 (Baumgartner 7). Assists: NSU 7 (Fox 3), MSUM 10 (Irsfeld 4). Turnovers: NSU 8, MSUM 16.