ROCHESTER – The Bemidji State men’s basketball players have had their backs against the wall for all of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) season. And prior to Friday’s 64-61 conference semifinal win over Upper Iowa in Rochester the situation was no different.
“Most coaches will tell you it is a different season,” Bemidji State head coach Mike Boschee said. “It is not win or lose, we are going to come back and practice the next day. If you lose now, the season is over.”
The players, especially the seniors, knew the situation and agreed with their coach.
“It has sprung us to the last three wins,” senior Lance Rongstad said of the win-or-go-home scenario. “It is tough to explain, but there is not a stronger influence to push you to succeed.”
The Beavers offense started the game extremely slowly, making just one of the first 10 shots and falling behind 11-2 after five minutes of play.
“We played poorly offensively, but Upper Iowa had a lot to do with that,” Boschee said. “Early in the game we settled for too many 3s early in the possession and that is something that I do not really care for.”
Already trailing early by nine, BSU took another blow when Rongstad picked up his second foul with 14:02 to play in the first half.
“It was terrible,” Rongstad said of sitting out most of the first half with foul trouble. “Thankfully I have a great team that was able to pick it up and keep us in the game. I truly believe that the last 10 minutes of the first half is where we won the game; just by being able to stay in the game.”
Junior Jake Schalow scored six points in 14 important minutes off the bench in the first half.
“He was huge,” Boschee said of Schalow. “He was not intimidated by the situation at all. He knew what had to be done.”
“Jake is a tremendous player,” Rongstad said, praising his teammate. “He is an incredible shooter and has a great understanding of the game. It is almost a shame that we have the talent on our team that we do, because he could be playing 36 minutes per game at some schools.”
The Beavers made five of their next six shos, but still trailed 18-12 with 8:40 remaining in the first half.
Tucker Wentzien scored 12 of the Peacocks’ first 18 points to spark the early lead.
Back-to-back layups from Maxie Rosenbloom and Schalow cut the UIU lead to four points at 24-20 with just over three minutes left in the first half.
Seniors Mason Walters and Dermaine Crockrell each delivered a layup in the final minute to trim the deficit to 28-25 at the break.
BSU recovered from its slow start to shoot 42 percent in the opening 20 minutes, but missed all seven of its 3-point attempts.
“Give our guys credit,” Boschee said. “We did not make our free throws and we shot 0-for-7 in the first half from beyond the arc, and we still only trailed by three at halftime. Our guys just wanted it and played with desire.”
Rongstad scored the first four points of the second half that gave the Beavers their first lead of the day and sparked an 8-1 run that put BSU ahead 33-29.
Rongstad scored all 10 of his points in the second half and made three of his four shots.
After trailing by three, Mason Walters and Zach Noreen fueled a 7-0 spurt to give the Beavers a four-point lead at 48-44 with 8:13 to play.
Walters and Noreen each finished with 13 points.
Noreen’s 3-pointer was BSU’s first basket from long distance.
Cedric Collins knotted the game at 56-56 with 3:16 left to play and Crockrell and Sam Elgin traded layups to make the score 58-58 with 1:56 left in the game.
Crockrell calmly stepped into a 3-pointer from the top of the key at the end of the shot clock to give BSU a 61-58 lead with 1:25 remaining.
Senior Mason Walters followed by doing the same thing. His 3-pointer with three seconds on the shot clock put the Beavers ahead by six with just 36 seconds to play.
“Those shots were real big, because 3-pointers are such a big part of our game,” Crockrell said. “We did not shoot the ball well today, but when we are shooting well, that is what gets us going.”
Thanks to a basket and free throw by Elgin and a missed free throw by Walters, Upper Iowa regained possession with 12 seconds left, trailing by three points.
But Elgin’s 3-point attempt from the wing rimmed out and fell into Rongstad’s arms as the clock expired.
BSU was able to hold on for the win, despite making just seven of its 16 free throw attempts.
“Well, hopefully we do not keep shooting like Shaq,” Crockrell, who contributed 17 points, five rebounds, four assists and two blocks, said of the team’s free throw shooting. “We have to make every point count.”
After its sluggish start, BSU shot 72 percent from the field in the final 34 minutes of the game.
Upper Iowa,which was ranked eighth in the most recent Central Region poll, will anxiously await Sunday’s national tournament announcement to see if its season will continue or if it ended Saturday.
Bemidji State, on the other hand, will take on either Augustana or Minnesota State 5:30 p.m. Saturday for the NSIC tournament championship and an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
“It is a short turnaround,” Boschee said. “Luckily, we know quite a bit about both of the teams, but we still have to plan for what they will want to do and how we plan to slow them down.”
Both Minnesota State and Augustana are essentially locks to make the NCAA tournament but the Beavers almost certainly will need the automatic bid to continue their season.
“Do or die,” Rongstad said. “Again, it is win or go home and four of us never get to play together again. We are going to give everything we have and hope our intensity and need to win will help us.”
Bemidji State (64): Crockrell 17 7-11 2-6, Walters 13 6-10 0-2, Noreen 13 6-9 0-2, Rongstad 10 3-4 4-4, Schalow 6 3-7 0-0, Rosenbloom 5 2-3 1-2, Edwards 0 0-2 0-0. Totals 64 27-46 7-16
Upper Iowa (61): Wentzien 18 7-15 2-4, Elgin 17 7-14 2-4, Woods 10 4-10 2-2, Hughes 7 3-5 1-1, Collins 5 2-3 0-0, Smith 2 1-1 0-0, Shonka 2 1-3 0-0 Pagel 0 0-1 0-0, Lang 0 0-4 0-0, Hay 0 0-1 0-0. Totals 61 25-57 6-8
3-point FG: BSU 3-11 (Crockrell 1, Walters 1, Noreen 1), Upper Iowa 5-15
Fouls: BSU 11, Upper Iowa 15
Halftime: Upper Iowa 28 Bemidji State 25