Trailing by nine points midway through the second half, Southwest Minnesota State made plays down the stretch and beat East Central 74-70 Sunday evening in a Central Region semifinal game.
The Mustangs (28-5) will play for the Central Region title 7 p.m. CT on Tuesday at Bearcat Arena.
“This has been our focus,” said Southwest Minnesota State senior Mitch Weg, who pulled down 12 rebounds in the win. “We’ve been trying to get to this regional championship since the start of the year. Sometimes people say you shouldn’t be looking that far ahead. But it has been our focus.
“All the blood, sweat and tears we have gone through makes this is a great feeling, but we still got more to go. Regardless of who we play on Tuesday, we will be ready to go.”
BRACKET: DII men's basketball tournament
East Central held its biggest lead at 56-47 when the Mustangs mounted their comeback. Two big plays that got them back in the game were back-to-back 3-pointers by sophomore Taylor Schafer. His second one tied the game at 58-58 with 6:52 remaining.
“That was huge for him to step up and knock those down like we know he can,” said Southwest Minnesota State sophomore Ryan Bruggeman. “We got down, but we have been in that situation before. As a group, we kept telling each other to stay together and keep to what we do.”
SMSU WINS!!! Region final baby!! SMSU 74, East Central 70— SMSU Men'sBasketball (@SMSUMustangsMBB) March 12, 2017
It took Southwest Minnesota State another four minutes to take its first lead in the second half. Once again, it was Schafer who delivered, sinking two free throws that put the Mustangs ahead 66-64 with 2:30 left. The lead grew to 69-64.
Bruggeman also played a key role in the win for the Mustangs. He scored a game-high 29 points. Schafer added 15.
“I am honestly used to it at this point,” Weg said of the play of the two sophomores. “Ryan has been leading us down the stretch both offensively and defensively. I just love playing with Ryan. You know he is going to make the right choice.”
Very little separated East Central and Southwest Minnesota State in the first half. Bruggeman made a basket at the top of the key with 1 second left in the first half, which pulled his team to within one point at 34-33.
East Central jumped to a 12-6 lead, but soon after, senior guard Braxton Reeves, who is averaging 22 points, jammed his leg when he went in for a basket. He hobbled off the court. It looked doubtful he would return.
While his trainer worked on his leg, Southwest Minnesota State scored eight straight points to take a 14-12 lead.
Reeves, who finished with 21 points, returned and quickly made a difference by knocking down a go-ahead 3-pointer. The lead changed four more times in the first half.
Bruggeman was nearly unstoppable for the Mustangs, scoring 20 points in the first half on 7-of-10 shooting. Reeves scored 14 in the first half for East Central.