By Chad Courrier
Free Press Staff Writer
WINONA — It’s been a difficult season for the Winona State men’s basketball team.
Senior Grant Johnson missed the first 15 games because of an NCAA violation, then senior Caleb Palkert missed the final five games with an eye injury.
However, the rock has been senior Clayton Vette, the 6-foot-9, 240-pound center who was the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference’s player of the year and kept the Warriors near the top of the league all season.
“Clayton is a very driven young man in whatever he does, very competitive,” Winona State coach Mike Leaf said. “Off the court, he’s the nicest kid you’ll ever meet.
“He’s a game-changer. We’ve been very fortunate to have him in our program.”
No. 2-seeded Winona State (24-7) takes on Northeastern State (19-8) in the 2:30 p.m. quarterfinal of the NCAA Central Region tournament today at Bresnan Arena. The Warriors had a 14-game winning streak during he middle of the season and had moved to the top of the region rankings. But Winona State was 4-4 in the last eight games, falling to No. 2 and losing the chance to host this event.
“It was frustrating because we stopped doing the things we’d been doing all year,” Vette said. “It was a close race, and we would have liked to have this at home. But Mankato has a great facility.”
Vette is averaging 20.8 points and 8.2 rebounds, while shooting 58.1 percent from the field. Senior guard Xavier Humphrey is the outside threat, averaging 11.3 points and shooting 41.1 percent from 3-point range. Johnson averages 10.6 points.
But the key for Winona State may be getting Palkert back. The 6-9 senior averages 6.1 points and 4.6 rebounds, and he leads the team with 42 blocked shots. Palkert also allows the Warriors to use a lineup that goes 6-9, 6-9 and 6-7 with junior Kellen Taylor.
“It’s nice to have a guy in there who can block some shots and make it difficult to take the ball to the basket,” Leaf said. “He won’t be at full strength, but he’ll be in there some.”
The Warriors have been to the national tournament 12 times, making the Elite Eight three times with national championships in 2006 and 2008. But this current team has not won a national tournament game in two other trips.
“I want to prolong this as long as I can,” Vette said.
Leaf said his underclassmen will be just as important as the five seniors.
“The guys have put in a tremendous amount of hard work, and this could be the last hurrah for some of the players,” Leaf said. “The seniors don’t want this to end, but everyone has to realize that we need to play our best basketball to move on.”