By Drew Lyon
Special to The Free Press
Minnesota State men’s basketball coach Matt Margenthaler had stressed that his team’s Friday night win over conference rival Winona State would be rendered meaningless if the Mavericks didn’t follow with a win Saturday against Upper Iowa.
The Mavericks overcame a flat start and early 18-point hole deficit to take a 60-59 lead with five seconds left, and it appeared they were close to meeting their coach’s challenge. But Upper Iowa’s Jake Hughes’ layup just before the final buzzer gave the Peacocks a 61-60 win in a Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference game at Bresnan Arena.
It was the first loss of the season for MSU (6-1, 2-1 in Northern Sun) and the program’s first-ever loss to Upper Iowa.
“It was a wasted weekend,” Margenthaler said. “We didn’t deserve to win, but we had every opportunity to win that game. To contend in this conference, you got to win your home games, and we didn’t do that tonight.”
In a wild first half, the Mavericks started cold on the offensive end; they remained scoreless until a Jarvis Williams layup at the 14:25 mark. Two corner 3-pointers from the Peacocks’ Sam Elgin led to an early 20-2 lead and a Margenthaler timeout. The Mavericks setttled into a rhythm and converted eight of their next 11 shots, as 6-foot-9 center Assem Marei made his presence felt under the boards, finishing with 10 first-half points and four rebounds.
Gage Wooten’s 3-pointer with 3:21 left cut Upper Iowa’s lead to four before David Smith answered with a layup between two Maverick defenders. After a Peacock layup in the final seconds, MSU’s Zach Monaghan received the in-bounds pass, heaved a rainbow shot from beyond half-court at the buzzer and drilled a 3-pointer off the backboard to send the Mavericks into the locker room facing a mere 35-31 deficit.
“That was a huge change in momentum,” Marei said. “We knew we were better than we were to start the game. We need to have that urgency more.”
MSU scored the first four points of the second half to tie the game, and Wooten’s putback layup gave the Mavericks their first lead at 39-38. The Peacocks recovered, and a Tucker Wentzien 15-foot jumper put Upper Iowa ahead 59-54 with 3:18 left in the game. The Mavericks made three free throws, held Upper Iowa on defense, then tied the game at 59 on Jimmy Whitehead’s runner with 1:03 remaining.
The Mavericks made only 8 of 13 free throws in the second half, and it proved fatal. Marei, who led with 17 points and 12 rebounds, made one of two free throws with 8.3 seconds left in the game to put MSU ahead 60-59.
Hughes took the in-bounds pass at halfcourt, and slithered through the Mavericks defense, floating a layup off the right side of the backboard with .04 seconds left.
“It was just a miscommunication,” Marei said. “We should’ve switched men.”
A disappointed Margenthaler vowed to make the most of his team’s first loss.
“I do think this well help us down the road,” he said. “We’re doing the right things, but we need to be tougher; as coaches, we need to better, too.”
The Mavericks continue their conference schedule Friday at Southwest Minnesota State.