The Bemidji State women's basketball team wrapped up the first half of the season by stunning No. 11 ranked Minnesota State University, Mankato in an 80-72 victory Saturday afternoon at BSU Gymnasium.
"This is one of the biggest wins I've ever been part of and it was just a great team win tonight," Bemidji State sophomore guard Sydney Epema said.
To understand how much Saturday's improbable victory over the defending national champions meant to the Beavers, all one needs to do is look back to last season when BSU won only three games.
After Saturday's win, the Beavers head into the holiday break with an 8-3 overall record (2-2 NSIC).
"That's the beauty of college athletics because one team can change from year to year," Bemidj State head coach Mike Curfman said. "Last year it seemed like not nothing was going right for us, but this year we have a lot of positives. We've just got a lot of great teamwork and effort."
The Beavers had to earn the win against the Mavericks (8-2 overall, 3-0 NSIC) by overcoming a slow start.
BSU erased a 14-point deficit late in the first half, led at halftime and rallied back from a seven-point deficit in the second half. The Beavers never trailed in the final 10 minutes of the game.
Freshman Jessie Althoff, who was named the NSIC offensive player of the week last week, led the Beavers with 18 points and hit a handful of clutch shots to keep BSU in control late in the game.
"She's really a talented young player and the thing I like about her game is that she is able to play facing the basket or with her back to the basket," Curfman said. "She can hit the 12 to 15-footers and I hope she doesn't realize that she's a freshman because she's playing like a much older player."
Shannon Thompson was the only other Beaver to reach double figures scoring and she had 13 points off the bench.
BSU's bench outscored the Mavericks bench 35-17.
Tiffany Moe led Mankato with 19 points and was one of four Mavericks in double figures.
The only downside for the Beavers was that the game did not count toward the conference standings. Curfman said the game was arranged because both teams had openings on their schedules and BSU agreed to play in an early season tournament next year at Mankato.
The Mavericks threatened to run away with the game early on.
The Mavericks hit most of their shots, were effective from 3-point range and pushed out to a 30-16 lead with 6:56 left in the first half.
It turned out to be Mankato's biggest lead of the game and also the turning point for the Beavers.
The Beavers closed out the half on a remarkable 19-5 run to take a 37-35 lead at the break.
"I thought the last eight minutes of the first half was big and Shannon Thompson was a key to that spurt," Curfman said.
The biggest play she made was a steal after an inbounds pass followed by a layup to make it 35-35 with one minute to play.
The Mavericks came out strong after the break and took a 48-41 lead five minutes into the second half.
Bemidji State went on a 9-1 run over the next three minutes to get back in the game and then took the lead for good, 53-52, on Samantha Baldwin's layup with 11:05 remaining.
But Mankato held the game close and BSU never led by more than nine points the rest of the way.
"We're definitely different than we were last year," Epema said. "This year we play better defense and that sets up our offense a lot. Last year we would play good for maybe a five minute stretch in the game and then we would lose it. This year we are playing a lot more consistent."
BSU is playing well in spite of a young and relatively inexperienced roster.
Only Epema returns as a regular starter from one year ago.
Althoff along with fellow freshmen Emily Kaus, Katie Pettit and junior transfer Anna Hebrink have emerged into regular starters in their first year with the Beavers.
Pettit and Hebrink combined for 17 rebounds against the Mavericks, which was another key to BSU's success in the win. The Beavers outrebounded the Mavericks 51-39.
Kaus had nine points, seven rebounds and was fed the ball often in the post in the closing minutes of the game.
"The one thing I like a lot about this team is that we have a good mix of returning players and newcomers," Curfman said. "It didn't take them long to gell and learn how to play together early on."
While Althoff and Thompson were standouts in the game, Curfman noted the team's depth by talking about nearly every player on the roster from starters down through the bench.
Epema said Bemidji State's expectations are different this season, adding the team is having much more fun on the court this season.
"We have big goals and we want to make it to the playoffs this season," Epema said. "We know we can come in every night and play with any team. From the No. 1 team to the No. 10 team in this league, it is very even and we know we can win on any given night."