MOORHEAD — Minnesota State Moorhead is scheduled to get a second chance at Wayne State for the first time this season, which has been altered multiple times due to COVID-19.
The Dragons were set to play the Wildcats in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference men’s basketball semifinals in late February, but Wayne State wasn’t able to play in that game due to COVID-19 test protocols.
“I think both of us were disappointed that we didn’t get to play each other because you always want to play games,” said Dragons head coach Chad Walthall.
The rematch of the game that never happened will take place at the NCAA Division II Central Region tournament in Aberdeen, S.D. The No. 5-seeded Dragons (10-4) play No. 4 seed Wayne State (11-6) at 6 p.m. Saturday, March 13, in the region first round at Wachs Arena. The winner of that game plays top-seeded Northern State (18-1) at 5 p.m. Sunday in the semifinals.
“I think we have the potential to be a team that’s built to do positive things in any kind of tournament play because I think we have the potential to play good defense and take care of the basketball,” Walthall said. “If we do that, I think we can score enough points to beat anybody, but you can’t have any lapses in those areas.”
The Dragons are playing in their first NCAA tournament since 2017. This tournament has a different format with 48 teams making the field instead of 64 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“That’s kind of always been our goal,” said Dragons junior guard Gavin Baumgartner on playing in his first NCAA tournament. “I know coach Wathall, that’s always his goal, too.”
The Dragons have played Northern State in three of their past four games heading into the Central Region. MSUM split two games at Northern State to end the regular season before the Wolves rolled to victory against the Dragons in the NSIC tournament championship game.
“It’s nice to return,” Walthall said of earning a spot in the Central Region tournament. “For these players to handle difficult situations and keep playing well through it all says a lot about them and who they are. I’m glad they’re getting rewarded for it.”
Wayne State was the No. 1 seed from the South Division for the NSIC tournament and knocked off St. Cloud State in the conference tournament before the Wildcats had to bow out of the semifinals. They are playing in the Division II tournament for the first time in 21 years.
Wayne State forward Jordan Janssen is averaging 17.4 points per game to lead his team in scoring. The 6-foot-7 junior is shooting 56% from the field.
“Janssen is tough,” Baumgartner said. “They’ve got some really quick guards and they play really, really hard. … They’re probably one of the toughest teams in our league and they always have been.”
Lorenzo McGhee leads the Dragons in scoring with 14.0 points per game. Baumgartner is second at 12.9 points per contest. MSUM has six players who average at least 8.6 points per game.
“The whole story has been our depth all year and I think that will continue to be a big point of success for us,” Baumgartner said. “Our camaraderie and the way we play together will be big for us going into the end of the season here.”
The Dragons had four games canceled during the regular season due to COVID-19 test protocols. Baumgartner said MSUM still has room to improve after only playing 14 games this season.
“It’s a weird year,” Baumgartner said. “I feel like we have a lot to improve upon yet. We’re kind of still in that growth phase.”
Dragons junior guard Bryce Irsfeld, who played only a few minutes in the NSIC tournament championship game due to an oblique injury, remains day-to-day. Walthall said he’s optimistic that Irsfeld could return Saturday.
“If we can string it all together, I think we have a good shot at some upsets here,” Baumgartner said.