McFeely: Hard foul ignites rivalry emotions as Northern State gets best of Dragons again
Two of the best teams in Northern Sun, and maybe Division II, played an entertaining affair.
MOORHEAD — Minnesota State Moorhead's Gavin Baumgartner stole the ball from Northern State's Sam Masten and steamed down court trying to reach the basket for a layup. He was on his way up when Wolves' backup Kobe Busch, sporting an impressive curly mohawk haircut, caught Baumgartner from behind and raked the Dragons' senior to the Alex Nemzek Hall court.
It was good for an immediate pair of crossed arms from the officials, signaling a flagrant foul. The red-clad MSUM football players seated behind the south basket stood and howled at Busch. Dragon players Jaden Stanley-Williams and Lorenzo McGhee moved in quickly and offered face-to-face commentary to Busch.
Replay confirmed the flagrant foul and the chirping from the football players continued.
"I feel like that kind of set the tone," Northern State sophomore big man Jacksen Moni said. "I felt we both kind of knew that we were both here to play and playing to win."
There was some heat in the old airplane hangar in south Moorhead.
For good reason.
The calendar said only mid-January, but this had the feel of a good old-fashioned late-season slobberknocker in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. The Dragons came in 13-2 and ranked No. 20 in NCAA Division II, riding a 10-game winning streak. The Wolves were 12-3 and unranked, although coach Saul Phillips offered an opinion contrary to that prior to tipoff.
"I think these are two top 10 teams in Division II," he said. "I really do."
The game confirmed that.
The final score Tuesday was 72-71 in favor of Northern State in a heartbreaker for the Dragons. In his office after the game, MSUM rookie coach Tim Bergstraser looked like he'd walked through the Zips Car Wash down 34th Street a few blocks. It looked like a tough loss for the young coach.
"That was high level basketball. I don't think you could get teams playing harder than that down the stretch," Phillips said. "There was a lot of bodies on the floor. It was really physical, which kept the scoring down a little bit, but it was two teams that wanted a piece of each other."
The Wolves and Dragons have developed a nice little rivalry, not surprising given the success of each program in the last decade. Northern State won the first game between the teams in Aberdeen, S.D., back in November. That score was 85-74, but the Dragons were without Baumgartner, an excellent guard, and backup Gabe Myren.
This was their chance at revenge before a nice crowd that included students, back finally from Christmas break.
After the brief fracas in the first half, it was a game that went from entertaining to highly entertaining to highly-highly entertaining. Division II basketball doesn't have the stuffiness of the D-I product — the shot clock rarely comes into play and, frankly, there isn't an emphasis on grind-it-out defense.
That proved true on this night.
"I don't know how they're not in the top 25, although they will be after tonight," Bergstraser said. "This was two really, really good basketball teams. You know how it is when it's MSUM and Northern. It's always a dogfight and a war. Everybody was looking forward to this game. Our guys were, too. It was a physical, competitive game and we just came out on the wrong end."
The Dragons led 36-35 at halftime and stretched it to 52-44 with 11:59 left. That was the biggest lead for either team.
MSUM led by five, 70-65, with 2:52 left after a Jaden Stanley-Williams 3-pointer got Nemzek rocking. But the Dragons scored just one point the rest of the way. Moni's old-fashioned three-point play and a driving layup by Northern State's outstanding point guard Sam Masten had the score 71-70 with a minute left.
A Dragon miss was followed by another Masten layup to make it 72-71 with 14 seconds left. MSUM turned it over on its last possession.
"Everybody knows Masten is a heck of a guy going downhill," Bergstraser said. "We tried to make him shoot threes, but we knew at some point he's going to keep going because he kept coming at us. We stopped him for the most part, but tip your hat to him. He was getting those buckets when they needed them and he just kept coming at us."
When the final horn sounded, Northern State players led by Augustin Reede and Jordan Belka walked toward the Dragons football players who'd been mouthing all game and waved bye-bye. There was some jawing. Phillips stepped in and shook some hands to cool off things.
"They're a really good team. They won the conference tournament last year so we knew we had to come out and play hard," Moni said. "They had a great crowd. The football team let us know a couple of times how they felt. But we're just happy to come out of here with a win."
Moni is a 6-foot-11 West Fargo Sheyenne graduate, along with teammate Michael Nhial, a 6-7 freshman. Both can play.
Moni finished with a game-high 26 points on 11 of 16 shooting, including 3 of 6 from beyond the arc. He can fill the hoop, even if his knuckleball shot looks unconventional. He's a player who might've ended up with one of the Dakotas schools in the Division I Summit League.
Phillips is happy to have him in Aberdeen.
"I feel like COVID had a little bit to do with it, just because my junior year I didn't really play the best. I had to be behind a couple of guys," Moni said. "Then once my senior year started, not a lot of college coaches could come out and recruit. But I'm happy with Saul. I'm happy where I'm at."
Who wouldn't be? The Wolves will be in the mix for a league title and berth in the NCAA tournament. So will the Dragons, the team Northern State beat in an entertaining and testy affair on this night.