ABERDEEN, S.D. — Basketball teams that can lose substantial leads but not lose their heads and the game are to be commended.
Minnesota State Moorhead did it not once but twice Saturday evening, seeing double-digit leads dwindle before battling past a resilient Wayne State 84-72 in the NCAA Division II Central Region playoffs at Northern State's Wachs Arena.
The Dragons saw a healthy 13-point first-half lead all but evaporate, then let a 15-point second-half advantage shrink to almost nothing. In both instances, they not only didn't fold but built the cushions back to comfortable levels relatively quickly.
"When we play Wayne State, like all the teams in this league (NSIC), all the teams are really good so you knew they weren't going away," Dragons head coach Chad Walthall said. "When you get in the tournament, every team is going to have runs and it's how you respond that matters. That's the most pressure we faced all year and we handled it pretty well."
The No. 5 seed Dragons improved to 11-4 and will get a fourth crack at top seed Northern State at 5 p.m. Sunday, March 14, in the region's second round.
The Dragons are 1-2 versus the Wolves (18-1) but handed Northern its lone loss of the season, 93-86, on Feb. 20 in Aberdeen, ending the Wolves' 25-game winning streak.
The Dragons took a 13-point lead early in the game, saw it whittled to two points, but had it back up to 13 points, 43-30, by halftime.
Wayne State chipped away at the Dragons' lead and closed the gap to 66-60 with six minutes to play.
Not to worry. As they did in the first half, the Dragons needed very little time to push the lead back to double figures and rode out the finish.
Jacob Beeninga led the Dragons with 16 points, Lorenzo McGhee scored 15 and grabbed seven rebounds, Gatdoar Kueth had 13 points and Jesse Bergh finished with 11. Gavin Baumgartner had nine points, four boards and six assists.
The Wildcats' Nate Mohr scored 17 points and Jordan Janssen and Alex Millender both scored 15.
Wayne State forced the Dragons into 15 turnovers and held a 15-11 edge in points off turnovers and a 20-7 advantage in second-chance points. But MSUM's bench outscored Wayne State's 34-6. The Wildcats also hit just 4-of-19 3-pointers and missed nine attempts in a row before finally connecting early in the second half.
Both teams were coming off considerable layoffs. MSUM hadn't played since the Feb. 28 NSIC championship game and Wayne — which had to sit out its scheduled conference semifinal against MSUM due to COVID-19 protocols — hadn't played since a first-round win over St. Cloud State on Feb. 25.
But Walthall said liked the performance from both teams, despite the disjointed nature of a game that featured several timeouts for video reviews, a total of 45 foul calls and a combined 62 free throw attempts (the Dragons made 28 of 33 foul shots).
"That was a really good basketball game," Walthall said. "With the layoffs, you wonder how it's going to work out. But, overall, I think both teams played pretty well."
The Dragons understand they'll need to at least duplicate that to have a shot against Northern State. But they have some muscle memory from knocking off the Wolves on their floor.
"They're a terrific team," Walthall said. "They had four starters on the (All-NSIC tournament team) and one was the MVP. They're a talented, talented group and they know how to play with each other. But we have done it before. You can't fear it if you want to have a chance."