A year ago, Minnesota State-Mankato freshman Cole Harper was playing high school basketball in Illinois, averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds per game.

His freshman counterpart, Joey Witthus was wrapping up a stellar career at Chanhassen, Minn. He scored 503 points his senior year and finished with 1,593 points.

On Saturday, the two freshmen got their first taste of NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship in the Central Regional quarterfinals in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The Mavericks were locked in an intense battle with MSU-Moorehead. The lead changed 26 times and there were 12 ties. These two teams know each other well. The last time they saw each other was Jan. 30. The Mavericks lost 94-89 in overtime to Moorhead.

“It was definitely higher, but I am an intense guy,” Harper said of the intensity in the Central Regional game. “I love those moments. I love playing that type of game.”

The two freshmen definitely stepped up when the pressure was at its highest. With 13 seconds remaining, Witthus went to the free throw line with Mankato leading 82-81. Witthus calmly made both free throws for his 19th point of the game.

Joey Wiithus
MSU-Mankato Athletics
Joey Wiithus
Moorhead had a chance to tie and the likely candidate to take the shot was sophomore Tanner Kretchman, who had made six of 10 three-pointers. On Kretchman’s 11th attempt, Harper was there to block it and then got a defensive rebound.

“I thought it came down to the little plays, the 50/50 balls, the rebounds and us stepping up there and making some free throws down the stretch,” said Mankato coach Matt Margenthaler.

Harper was fouled after the rebound and it was now his turn to go to the free throw line with 3 seconds left. All he needed to do was make one free throw to clinch the victory.

“I got a feeling of relief. I was confident when Cole went to the line,” said junior Jon Fuqua, who finished with a game-high 28 points. “I have seen him knock so many down. I had confidence in him before he went to the free throw line. I just knew the game was sealed.”

Harper knocked down the first free throw for the final point of the game, giving Mankato an 85-81 upset victory over Moorhead, the No. 3 seed and defending Central Regional champion.

“It was an awesome experience,” Harper said. “That was a big reason why I wanted to come here. I love the coaches and the guys. You look at this program and you see all the wins and how many times they get to the tournament. It is a great place to be. My first time I would say it was a good experience.”

The Mavericks, 22-9, return to action at 5 p.m. CT. Sunday and will play Northwest Missouri State, 26-5. The winner moves on to the Central Regional championship Tuesday evening.

Last year Northwest Missouri beat Mankato 59-56 in the first round of Central Region and two years ago, Northwest Missouri beat Mankato 71-66 in the semifinals.

Margenthaler is confident his young players and the rest of his team will be ready on Sunday.

“For these young guys, they play so many games, you just got to go hoop now,” Margenthaler said.

He likes what the young players have brought to the team, helping the Mavericks accomplish more than some might have thought.

“We have exceeded a lot of expectations that the community, the university and sometimes ourselves on what we can do,” Margenthaler said. “This is a great group. They want to stay together.

“Joey Witthus has absolutely been a stellar player for us from day one. He kept getting better and better. He has so much confidence and knows what he can do. You look at the two freshmen out there starting for us right now and a sophomore, the future is very bright for this program. The big thing for us was getting here and seeing what this was all about.”

Harper admits he struggled some at the beginning of the season. There is nothing unusual about that. It takes freshmen time to adjust playing against some players who are 21 or 22 years old.

“Near the end of the season I started to play better,” Harper said. “That means these guys are relying on me to do what I got to do. Coach put me in a starting role and that put more responsibility on me. I am just trying to whatever I can do to benefit the team. I will pick up the dirty work and get the rebounds.

“I would definitely say my confidence has gone up immensely this season. It started out pretty low. Coaches believed in me and told me to keep working and that is what I did. It has been a good ride.”

The Mavericks would like to ride all the way to Frisco, Texas, site of the 2016 Elite Eight.

Upsets in first week of NCAA Division II men’s basketball championship

Three No. 1 seeds got beat in the first round of the NCAA Division II men’s basketball championship. Southern New Hampshire beat Holy Family 88-80 in the East Regional. Senior Rodney Sanders scored 30 points in the victory. Southern New Hampshire became the first No. 8 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed in the East Region.

In the South Central Regional, Lubbock Christian made a splash in its first year eligible for the NCAA Division II men’s basketball tournament. The Chaparrals beat No. 1 seed and host Midwestern State 79-73 in overtime. Five players scored in double figures for Lubbock Christian.

Lubbock Christian Athletics
In the Atlantic Regional, Mercyhurst pulled out a 66-65 victory over No. 1 seed and host Wheeling Jesuit. It was the first NCAA Tournament win in school history for Mercyhurst.

Rematch in women’s Central Region championship

A week ago, Emporia State beat Pittsburg State 80-66 in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.

Emporia State earned the No. 1 seed in the Central Regional but had to travel to Pittsburg State, the No. 2 seed because Emporia State’s arena was being used for high school basketball.

Pittsburg State Athletics
Emporia State won its first two Central Regional game. Pittsburg State needed overtime in the semifinals to beat Arkansas Tech 91-80.

It is just the second time in school history that Pittsburg State has reached the Sweet 16. For Emporia State, the defending Central Region champion, it is a familiar place.

The two teams, both of whom are 28-5, will meet at 7 p.m. CT Monday at John Lance Arena. It will be the fourth time the two teams have seen each other. Emporia won 90-66 at Pittsburg State on Dec. 19. Pittsburg State got its revenge when it beat the Hornets 74-66 in Emporia on Feb. 6.