BEMIDJI – If Bemidji State has learned one thing from this wild basketball season, it’s this: They can beat anybody. And vice-versa.
After a weekend sweep of No. 22 St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth, the Beavers host Wayne State at 7 p.m. today in the first round of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference/Sanford Health Basketball Tournament.
And although BSU (15-11, 13-9 NSIC) nabbed a No. 3 seed in the tournament and the Wildcats are just a No. 6 seed, the Beavers know that’s not necessarily an indication of how the game will play out.
“They’re a quality team,” BSU head coach Mike Boschee said of Wayne State. “They play a style that’s kind of difficult to prepare for. They have quality players that are tough matchups for anybody playing them. They played pretty inspired basketball up here at our place, so we’ll need to be at our best to be them.”
The Wildcats (17-11, 11-11 NSIC) defeated the Beavers 64-62 in the only meeting between the teams Jan. 12 in Bemidji. And the fact they’re just a No. 6 seed just shows the volatility and competitiveness of the NSIC.
“I think that just speaks to the level of the league in general,” Wayne State head coach Paul Combs said. “I think both divisions have some really quality teams. It often just depends on when you play them.”
Although the Wildcats finished sixth in the South Division, they played some good games against top teams. In February alone, they traveled to Northern State, Minnesota State Moorhead, Southwest Minnesota State and Sioux Falls.
They won three of those four games, including an 18-point rally to beat Northern and a 20-point rally to defeat Moorhead.
“Getting Wayne, we definitely want to play them again after the showing we had against them earlier in the year,” BSU senior Lance Rongstad said. “I think we’re confident after this weekend. And I think we have a bit of a chip on our shoulder as well. We want to play them again and we want to play well.”
In the last meeting between the teams, the Wildcats held BSU leading scorer Dermaine Crockrell scoreless on 0-for-6 shooting. They also did so without their own leading scorer.
Senior guard Amry Shelby got hurt at the end of the first half and didn’t return in the game.
They rallied from a five-point deficit without him to shock the Beavers. Forward Derrell Williams scored 12 of his team-high 16 points in the second half to lead WSC last time.
“That was such a physical game,” Combs said of January’s battle. “We were extremely fortunate to win that game. We’ve got a lot of respect for Bemidji State.”
The two teams also met in the quarterfinal round of the NSIC tournament in 2012. BSU won 57-53 in Bemidji to advance to the semifinals. The Beavers needed a late comeback to dispatch the Wildcats that time, too.
“They limit the possessions in a game so they end up playing a lot of closer games,” Lance Rongstad said. “That’s just how they play. They never let you really get going. They’re kind of a grind-it-out team. They came back to beat Moorhead after being down like 18 with 6 minutes to go. They’re definitely a good talented team, well coached.”
Last season, of course, the Beavers came into the tournament as the regular season conference champion, as well as the top seed. They went 21-7 in the regular season and didn’t need to win the tournament title to earn the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
This season, however, things are a little different – BSU certainly had a nice regular season but the Beavers aren’t the dominant force they were last season. They almost certainly have to win it all this season.
“We were thinking we had to win the conference tournament in order to get into the NCAAs,” BSU guard Jason Edwards said. “So that’s our mindset right now. We just have to protect our house. We were a little shakier on the road, but we know we can win and home and play with anybody.”
The Beavers own two wins against nationally-ranked opponents (St. Cloud State and Minnesota State) and nearly beat another (Winona State).
The NSIC tournament is anyone’s to win. The Beavers think it can be them.
“We’ve beat Mankato, we’ve played close with Winona, we beat St. Cloud,” Edwards said. “We definitely can play with anybody, so we’re ready for whoever it is.”