ABERDEEN, S.D. — Minnesota State Moorhead didn't exhibit the offensive juice Sunday night needed to defeat a team like Northern State, the top seed in the Division II Central Region men's basketball tournament.
The Dragons shot 34% from the field and the Wolves pulled away in the second half to earn a 77-65 victory in the region semifinals at Wachs Arena before 1,700 fans.
The Dragons (11-5) led by as many as five points early in the second half, but couldn't protect that lead as they shot 10-for-34 (29%) from the floor after halftime. MSUM played the Wolves four times this season, losing three of those matchups, including region semifinal and the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championship game.
"They're an outstanding team," Dragons head coach Chad Walthall said of the Wolves. "They're proved themselves over and over again. I will say this, I am sick of playing them."
Northern State (19-1) advanced to Tuesday's Central Region championship game, ending MSUM's season. The Wolves lone loss came against the Dragons on the final game of the regular season. However, NSU avenged that setback with two postseason wins against MSUM. The teams played each other four times in less than a month.
"It was a little bit like an NBA playoff series," said Northern State head coach Saul Phillips, a former North Dakota State head coach. "I had a feeling after the game in Sioux Falls that we might see them again because they are good. They were going to be around in March. ... I'm glad we don't have to play them again this year honestly."
The Dragons took a 38-33 lead after junior guard Gavin Baumgartner, who scored a game-high 24 points, sank a free throw with 19 minutes to play in the second half.
The Wolves countered with nine consecutive points to surge into the lead for good. Junior guard Mason Stark sparked that rally with a 3-point play that cut the Dragons lead to 38-36 with 18:25 remaining. Junior forward Parker Fox capped the rally with a transition layup that gave Northern State at 42-38 lead with 16:17 to play.
"We knew they were going to come out with some passion, come out with some heart. That's a good ballclub," said the 6-foot-8 Fox, who had 21 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocked shots. "I like the way that we responded. We have faith in each other ... and we relied on that and got it done."
Baumgartner momentarily slowed the Northern State momentum with a 3-point play that trimmed the Wolves lead to 42-41 with 15:55 remaining. Northern State, however, answered with a 14-4 scoring surge to push its lead to double digits. The 6-foot-2 Stark capped that rally with two free throws for a 56-45 lead with 10:42 remaining.
"I thought we got careless with the basketball a little bit. You just can't give a team extra possessions," said Walthall, whose team finished with 13 turnovers that led to 20 Northern State points. "It wasn't that we turned it over, they converted on the other and that's all it takes and all of a sudden you are climbing uphill a little bit."
Sophomore forward Dane Zimmer finished with 11 points on 4-for-8 shooting from the field. Baumgartner and Zimmer were the only two Dragons to score in double digits. MSUM shot 4-for-23 (17%) from the 3-point line. Northern State shot 1-for-15 (7%) from beyond the arc, but shot 20-for-56 (52%) from the floor.
"If you're going to beat a team like that, you have to knock down some open 3s and they just didn't (fall) tonight," Walthall said. "They're so long defensively, longer than most teams in our league, so that really gives us a lot of issues. As good as looks as we had, they're also long and they're contesting stuff so that's difficult to handle."
The Dragons had a two-point lead into halftime, despite shooting 14-for-37 (38%) from the floor in the opening half. Baumgartner scored 14 points in the first 20 minutes to lead MSUM, which closed the first half on a 13-4 run. Baumgartner sparked that run with a drive and basket that cut the Wolves lead to 29-24 with 4:42 to play until halftime.
Dragons junior Lorenzo McGhee capped the rally with a 15-foot jump shot that gave MSUM a 35-33 lead with 51 seconds to play in the opening half that were the final points before halftime.
The Wolves took a 16-8 lead after a thunderous, two-handed Fox dunk with 11:58 to play in the first half. However, Fox was called for a technical foul after the dunk. The Dragons sank the two ensuing free throws that sparked a 10-2 run. Baumgartner capped that surge with a drive and layup that tied the game at 18-18 with 8:41 to play until halftime.
Fox and Tommy Chatman each scored 10 points for the Wolves in the opening 20 minutes. Northern State shot 15-for-31 (48%) from the floor in the first half. The Wolves built off that, shooting 14-for-25 (56%) from the floor after halftime.
"We fought through a lot of things," said Dragons guard Jake Mertens, who played his final game for MSUM. "I think this team will be remembered, but I think this is just a building block to how much further this program can go in the near future."
MSUM (11-5): McGhee 2-9 0-2 4, Baumgartner 8-23 7-10 24, Irsfeld 3-7 1-2 9, Zimmer 4-8 3-3 11, Kueth 3-11 0-0 7, Mertens 0-1 0-0 0, Myren 0-0 0-0 0, Sem 3-6 0-0 6, Gastner 0-0 0-0 0, Hanson 0-0 0-0 0, Rund 0-0 0-0 0, Rund 0-0 0-0 0, Sevlie 0-1 0-0 0, Bergh 1-2 0-0 2, Beeninga 0-3 2-2 2. Totals 24-71 13-19 65.
NSU (19-1): Chatman 7-13 2-2 16, Stark 6-13 6-7 18, Belka 1-5 2-2 4, Kallman 5-9 5-6 15, Robinson 1-2 0-0 3, Nielson 0-0 0-0 0, Rohrbach 0-0 0-0 0, Terhark 0-0 0-0 0, Busch 0-1 0-0 0, Holt 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-56 18-22 77.
Half: MSUM 35, NSU 33. 3-point goals: MSUM 4-23 (McGhee 0-1, Baumgartner 1-6, Irsfeld 2-5, Zimmer 0-2, Kueth 1-6, Mertens 0-1, Bergh 0-1, Beeninga 0-1), NSU 1-15 (Chatman 0-3, Stark 0-1, Belka 0-3, Fox 0-2, Kallman 0-3, Reede 1-2, Busch 0-1). Total fouls: MSUM 16, NSU 15. Technical foul: Fox. Rebounds: MSUM 39 (Sem 7), NSU 34 (Fox 12). Assists: MSUM 11 (Baumgartner 4), NSU 11 (Kallman 4). Turnovers: MSUM 13 (Irsfeld 4), NSU 9 (Stark 3).