An hour before tipoff Wednesday night, Bemidji State University men's basketball coach Matt Bowen sported a grin that stretched from one side of his face to the other. The expression remained throughout the early shoot-around, the warm-up session and the National Anthem but for a two-hour period the smile was replaced with a look of determination as he was busy directing his team in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament opener.
About 9 p.m., however, the smile returned as the coach and his players celebrated a 57-53 victory over the Wildcats in the quarterfinal round of the NSIC playoffs.
The reward for Wednesday's victory is a trip to Taylor Center in Rochester and Saturday's 2:30 p.m. semifinal matchup against MSU Moorhead. The Dragons downed Augustana 91-83 Wednesday to earn their shot at the top-seeded Beavers.
In the other quarterfinal matchups SMSU tripped UMD 99-92 and Winona State bumped St. Cloud 64-53.
"There was reason to smile," Bowen said. "I don't think this was a high-pressure situation for us because I believe we were in the NCAA National tournament whether we won or lost this game. I didn't think our season was going to end even if we lost but we wanted to win so the kids could make it to Rochester as a reward for a great year.
"We have worked so hard to get to this point and the community has backed us up so well that the players and I didn't want to disappoint the fans. We wanted to win this game."
BSU, behind a tenacious defense, led most of the way Wednesday but with one minute to play the Beavers trailed 51-50 after Wayne State's Amry Shelby scored on a fast break following a Beaver turnover.
Bryce Tesdahl, however, answered with a bomb from the top of the circle 15 seconds later and, after Bemidji State's defense forced a wild shot by Vontrell Seroyer, the Beavers grabbed the rebound and James Ellisor turned the opportunity into a fast-break dunk.
With 10 seconds to play Ellisor iced the victory by draining a pair of free throws and the Beavers officially punched their ticket to Rochester.
"When we lost the lead it made us nervous but we knew the game was going to be close all the way," said BSU's Lance Rongstad. "It's always nice to have someone like Bryce there to make the big 3-pointer."
Points were at a premium as both defenses dominated the flow and neither offense could maintain any consistency.
Midway through the first half Bemidji State had a 10-4 lead and by intermission the Beavers owned only a 21-15 advantage.
"Wayne State always makes you earn everything you get," Rongstad said. "The effort and intensity that Wayne State played with didn't surprise us. They played this way all season long and it gave us trouble.
"But we were prepared for a physical and scrappy game," Rongstad continued. "Any time you watch a game that goes deep into the playoffs you'll see that this is the way it is played. And I think that is a good thing."
The physical brand of basketball took its toll on both offenses as missed shots and uncharacteristic turnovers plagued each side.
"I don't think we had a good offensive rhythm going," Bowen said. "It was a grinding game and that is what I expected.
"We escaped but at this point of the season it doesn't matter how you win. It is a matter of surviving and advancing."
Ellisor led BSU's offense with 14 points while Dermaine Crockwell and Rongstad contributed 12. Bemidji State committed 14 turnovers and dished 12 assists.
"I don't fault our team as much as I credit Wayne State," Bowen said of BSU's low 57-point production. "We knew it was going to be a grinding game and it was."
Wayne State (53)
Williams 4-10, 1-4, 9; Holdsworth 1-3, 0-0, 3; Shelby 7-14, 0-0, 15; Seroyer 4-11, 0-0, 10; Aluong 3-7, 0-0, 7; Bauschek 0-3, 2-2, 2; Worthington 2-3, 0-0, 4; Folfzen 1-3, 0-0, 3. Totals: 22-55, 3-6, 53
Noreen 1-4, 2-2, 4; Ellisor 5-9, 3-4, 14; Crockrell 4-10, 2-2, 12; Rongstad 5-8, 2-2, 12; Tesdahl 2-5, 1-2, 6; Rosenbloom 0-0, 0-0, 0; Edwards 0-0, 0-0, 0; Walters 2-8, 2-5, 6; Schalow 1-1, 0-0, 3. Totals: 20-45, 12-17, 57.
3-point FG: Wayne State 6; BSU 5 (Ellisor 1, Crockrell 2, Tesdahl 1, Schalow 1)
Fouls: Wayne State 15, BSU 12
Halftime: BSU 21, Wayne State 15