Mustangs ready for Elite Eight battle
Lone Star Conference features several national powerhouses
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. --- Maybe the spotlight does shine a little brighter and perhaps the stage is a little bigger at the NCAA Division II Elite Eight, but Midwestern State isn’t going to feel overwhelmed by the moment.
The unranked Mustangs (25-8) play in one of the toughest conferences in the country, the Lone Star Conference, which features the likes of national powers Tarleton State and Central Oklahoma, and there is no question that being tested on a nightly basis has played a role in Midwestern’s run to Springfield.
“I don’t know how tough other leagues are, but I think our league is one of the toughest in the nation,” senior guard Chris Hagan said. “You have to bring it every night in our league and I think that has prepared us for situations like this where you either bring it or go home.”
Midwestern head coach Grant McCasland believes his team is here because it was tested in league play, and he hopes the experience will benefit his squad when it squares off against No. 2 Bellarmine (30-2) at noon Wednesday in a national quarterfinal at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.
“There is no question that our league has prepared us for this moment,” McCasland said. “It has given us big-game experience that we can draw from when we take the floor Wednesday.”
Speaking of experience, the Mustangs are the only team that played in the Elite Eight last season. Midwestern went down 92-88 in the quarterfinal round despite a 31-point performance from Hagan.
“We were disappointed with the way things went last year,” McCasland said. “I think the experience helps, though. We are familiar with everything. I know our guys will go out and play hard and compete and do whatever they can to try and win the game.”
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It didn’t seem as if Midwestern would be able to make a run at the Elite Eight. The Mustangs lost three times to Tarleton State prior to the regional, including a 74-50 setback in the conference tourney, and drew the Texans in the opening round of the NCAA tourney.
That's where it all changed for the Mustangs.
They defeated Tarleton State 64-51 in the opening round and went on to take down Missouri Southern (75-52) and Central Oklahoma (73-66) to punch a ticket to the Elite Eight.
“I think the biggest thing is that we got over the Tarleton hump. It was like a psychological barrier for us. Once we overcame that, it jumpstarted everything else for us.”
Midwestern is averaging 76.2 points per outing and allowing 63.7. Midwestern is shooting 49.3 percent from the field and holding opponents to 40.9 percent shooting.
Hagan is the leading scorer, at 21.3 points per outing, while junior guard Michael Lloyd, a transfer from BYU, is averaging 12.7 points per game. Hagan and Lloyd have nailed 72 and 67 treys, respectively.
“Chris is our best player and our hardest-working player, and we felt like he was a great core guy to build a team around,” McCasland said. “We sold the new guys that we brought in that we want to play for a national championship at Midwestern State. They have an opportunity to do that this week.”
Midwestern is the first sixth seed to advance to the Elite Eight since the format went to six-team regionals in 1995. The Mustangs are also trying to become only the third team from the South Central Region to win a national title. Northeastern State was the last team to do it back in 2003.
Hagan believes he and his teammates can make that dream a reality. He remembers what it was like to walk off the floor here a year ago empty-handed. He is motivated to have a better experience this time around.
“I’m really trying to cherish this moment,“ Hagan said. “It wasn’t a great experience last year but I learned a lot from it. I know how to approach it this time and it would be great if we could win a championship. We’ve worked hard to give ourselves a chance to do it.“