MANKATO — The bigger they are, the harder Minnesota State attacks.
“You have to go right after guys like that,” Mavericks center Assem Marei said. “Just play as hard as you can and don’t worry about anything.”
Minnesota State closed the game with a 21-10 run to defeat Arkansas Tech 81-65 in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II Central Region men’s basketball tournament Saturday at Bresnan Arena. The top-seeded Mavericks led 60-55 with 6:40 remaining.
“I felt pretty good because we were scoring right with them,” Minnesota State coach Matt Margenthaler. “We just started making the extra pass, and we got to the free-throw line. You have to knock down the free throws at this time of the year.”
The first half was tight. The Mavericks scored nine straight to lead 25-15 with 7:10 remaining, but Tech answered with nine straight. Marei’s post basket off an assist from Zach Monaghan put the Mavericks on top 33-30 at halftime. “I thought we finished the half really well and got some momentum,” Margenthaler said.
The Mavericks opened the second half with eight straight, with Connor O’Brien scoring seven, to widen the gap.
“I felt like we were just there in the first half, we didn’t have energy,” O’Brien said. “I thought I could lead by example and pick it up a notch. I’ve been to an NCAA tournament, and I knew if I led, everyone would follow.”
Arkansas Tech was able to rally again, pulling even at 41 at the 13-minute mark.
“It kind of exemplifies our team that we seem to play our best when our backs are against the wall,” Arkansas Tech coach Doug Karleskint said. “We fought back, but (Minnesota State is) such a good offensive team. It’s tough to string together stops.”
The Mavericks held a 60-55 lead with 6:30 to play, and at Minnesota State, that’s Jarvis Williams’ time. The team’s only senior scored 11 of his 19 points as the Mavericks closed strong.
“I think there was a feeling-out process early,” Margenthaler said. “We didn’t know a lot about Arkansas Tech, other than that they’re very athletic. We got some good looks early that didn’t go in, but we stayed with it. The guys really competed well tonight.” O’Brien had 17 points and eight rebounds, and Marei added 12 points and 12 rebounds, helping the Mavericks to a 39-34 rebounding advantage against the taller Wonder Boys.
Zach Romashko had 12 points, with two 3-pointers in the final six minutes. Gage Wooten scored 11 points, making two 3-pointers, and Monaghan had nine assists.
“We stayed with the game plan and started guarding better (at the end),” O’Brien said. “We didn’t have any problem scoring. We just had to stop their penetration, and then we had things under control.”
Jared Williamson scored 27 points for Arkansas Tech.
Minnesota State (27-4) plays Harding or Central Missouri in the tournament semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.