BEMIDJI – When the NSIC men’s basketball coaches made their preseason predictions last fall they gave the top nod to Winona State, and St. Cloud State was picked to finish fourth in the overall standings.
Bemidji State and Upper Iowa were among the teams earning little respect from the coaches, as the Beavers and the Peacocks were predicted to tie for 12th among the 16 league teams.
Last Saturday in the NSIC playoff quarterfinals, however, BSU and Upper Iowa proved that early predictions mean absolutely nothing, as the Beavers defeated Winona 74-72 on the Warriors’ home court and the Peacocks blistered St. Cloud 73-55 in St. Cloud.
Those victories vaulted the two underdogs into Friday’s 2:30 p.m. league playoff semifinal at Taylor Arena in Rochester, while the players from Winona and St. Cloud will be in the stands watching.
Friday’s other semifinal finds Minnesota State tangling with Augustana. Friday’s winners will square off 5:30 p.m. Saturday in Rochester for the title.
“Given that we graduated lat year’s conference’s Player of the Year (James Ellisor) and Bemidji’s all-time assist leader (Bryce Tesdahl), we were ranked 12th going into the season,” said Beaver center Zach Noreen. “But we knew that we returned many role players.
“When I came back this summer and saw the guys I knew that we were ready. The way we progressed as a team and as individuals (during the offseason) was impressive,” Noreen added.
Forward Mason Walters has enjoyed his senior season and is having fun during the current post-season run.
“Nobody expected us to be here (the NSIC semifinals) and we are defying everybody’s expectations,” he said. “The fun part of the year is when you can extend your season. And we want to extend it as long as we can.”
A year ago BSU lost to MSU Moorhead in the conference semifinals but received a bid in the NCAA Central Regional because of its 22-8 overall record. The season ended in the next outing, however, as the Beavers lost 77-72 to St. Cloud in the opening game of the region tournament.
This winter there will be no automatic regional bid for Bemidji State. The only way BSU will advance to the region tournament is by winning it all.
“Other people may put more pressure on us because we have to win the tournament to move to the regionals but for us, Friday will be just another game,” Walters said. “But this year we are hungry and we want to advance further than we did last season.”
Upper Iowa shares that goal and the Beaver players and coaches expect Friday’s game to go down to the wire.
“Upper Iowa is a great basketball team,” said BSU coach Mike Boschee. “They play hard and so do we. It should be an entertaining game to watch and we have to be ready to play our best basketball.”
The Beavers, seeded third in the north division, will take a 17-11 overall record into Friday’s contest while south division No. 4 Upper Iowa is 20-10. Among the Peacocks’ victories is an 81-67 win over Bemidji State on Jan. 19.
That game was the back half of a Friday-Saturday BSU road trip which began with a tough 70-67 loss at Winona.
“Upper Iowa has beaten us already this year and we’ll have to come out right away and play well if we want to win,” Walters said. “Going into this year we knew that, with all of the guys we had coming back, we could play in the upper echelon of the league so making it to Rochester is no surprise to us.”
Noreen said there is no secret to winning in the NSIC. But knowing what to do is not enough.
“It’s going to take all of us playing our best and we’ll have to set the tone right away,” he said. “Defense is always the key. We were able to set the tone against Wayne in the first game of the tournament (a 71-54 BSU victory) and Wayne never came back.
“Upper Iowa has many individuals who can go off and we’ll have to contain them as much as we can.”
Each player has his own way to stop his opponent and at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Noreen’s main weapon is his size.
“I’m the big beefy guy down low,” he said of his role on the team. “I use my mass instead of my height. My main objective is to not let the big bangers bang on me.
“Last year at Rochester we learned that we have to play harder to advance,” Noreen said of the 2012 semifinal loss. “This year we are the underdogs and to succeed we will have to play with tenacity. You have to love the atmosphere at Rochester but when you are this far into the tournament, it’s all serious.”