Tough road tests loom for MSU women

There’s plenty of reasons the Minot State women’s basketball team, which received three votes in the Division II coaches poll for a second straight week, is winning just 60 percent of its games away from the MSU Dome.

The long nights. The late (often 1 a.m.) hotel arrivals. The quick turnaround for 10 a.m. shoot-around.

“That’s part of it, but we just gotta be mentally tough enough to overcome that and find a way to push through it,” MSU coach Sheila Green Gerding said.

The Beavers (14-4 overall, 10-4 Northern Sun) have reeled off three straight road wins since dropping decisions at St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth in mid-December. But even when they’re winning, life away from home has been far from easy.

MSU’s five road games have been decided by 5.6 points on average, with lead changes in the final 10 seconds of two games. In MSU’s last road contest, on Jan. 11, junior forward Katie Hardy drained a pair of free throws with five seconds left to clinch a 60-59 win over Winona State.

This weekend, the Beavers’ toughest back-to-back road tests so far – and arguably the most challenging they’ll have all season – loom Friday night at Concordia-St. Paul (15-6, 10-4 and Saturday afternoon at No. 25 Minnesota State-Mankato (13-5, 10-4).

After bluffing that her team isn’t placing any more importance on these games, Green Gerding conceded that the Beavers will be a little extra juiced up for the contests. The Beavers are tied with C-SP and Mankato for third in the NSIC standings.

“They know they’re up against two very good teams that have been ranked off and on throughout the year and in the past and have great history,” Green Gerding said.

The Golden Bears, who received 12 votes in the latest coaches poll, have won their last four games, including impressive wins over then-No. 11 Wayne State and Augustana.

“I just look at Concordia as solid,” Green Gerding said. “They score inside and outside. They don’t do anything flashy or fancy. They’re just good at what they do.”

Green Gerding is right; C-SP isn’t flashy and neither are its stats. The Golden Bears lead the conference in only one team statistic (assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.34) and one individual category (Carissa Wolyniec’s 2.76 3-pointers per game). But they own three victories over ranked opponents this year and are 9-2 at the Gangelhoff Center.

Mankato, meanwhile, dazzles. The Mavericks torch the nets at 83.1 points per game with the help of senior forward Ali Wilkinson (19 ppg), the NSIC’s second-leading scorer.

“Mankato is kind of an uptempo style like we are and then a lot of pressure defense,” Green Gerding said. “They’re a little stingier defensively and make it a little harder to take care of the basketball and handle their pressure.”

The Mavericks, who are 7-1 at the Taylor Center, own a conference-best plus-6.0 turnover margin and their 10.6 steals per game rank second.

A pair of wins could skyrocket Minot State into the D-II rankings for the first time in school history, not that Green Gerding is giving that notion an ounce of thought.

“I think that they’re very winnable games, but we have to do a lot of things well,” Green Gerding said. “We can’t get away with sloppy play and we can’t get away with sloppy defense. … We’ve gotta be on our game for these two road games.”

Building for future, and for now

Little by little, the Minot State men’s basketball team is making progress. For six straight games – and 10 of 11 – that progress didn’t show up in the win column.

Last weekend, the Beavers (7-11 overall, 3-11 NSIC) turned in their finest consecutive outings since beginning the season with five straight wins. MSU ran over Minnesota Crookston 78-59 and followed with a deceiving 84-66 loss to third-place Bemidji State.

“We really played two pretty solid games over the weekend,” MSU coach Matt Murken said. “I thought we played 35 minutes of really good basketball against Bemidji State, but when you’re playing one of the top teams in the league, it takes a little more than 35 minutes to get a victory.”

Murken hopes this win – unlike MSU’s win at University of Mary on Dec. 20, which ended a five-game skid – helps his team catch stride and work its way back to .500.

“I still feel like we’ve got a lot of good basketball ahead of us over the next four weeks, eight games,” Murken said. “I feel like we can play our best basketball when it matters most: when it gets to tournament time.”

“We’ve shown the ability to compete with the best teams in our league,” he added. “We’ve just gotta show the ability to beat those teams. That’s the next step for us.”

The Beavers have an opportunity to build on their recent success with a pair of road games this weekend. On Friday, they visit a struggling Concordia-St. Paul squad (5-13, 2-12) before traveling to No. 22 Minnesota State-Mankato (17-4, 11-3) the following night.

C-SP boasts the conference’s leading scorer in junior guard Terez Van Pelt, who puts up 19.4 points per game. Mankato has a trio of top-20 scorers with juniors Assem Marei (16.1) and Zach Monaghan (13.8) and senior Gage Wooten (13.5). Marei, a forward, and point guards Van Pelt and Monaghan each garnered all-NSIC second-team honors last year.

“Two teams that would prefer to play a little more uptempo than a lot of the teams in our league,” Murken said. “Two teams that have very good point guards – all conference guards on both squads. They can push the tempo, score and are both high assist guys, as well.”

Murken yearns to see his squad finish off a few more possessions each game, he said. That can often be the difference between a win and a loss – something the Beavers have learned the hard way this month. Still a fledgling Division II program, it’s imperative for MSU to continue to make strides, Murken said.

“Whether it’s for this postseason, for the next weekend or for the next season, you want to continue to see those guys improving – whether it’s freshmen or seniors.”

Wrestling hopes to build on win

Any win – even an exhibition win – certainly provides a boost for the Minot State wrestling team.

The Beavers (1-9 overall, 1-3 NSIC) knocked off host University of Regina (Sask.) 26-10 last Thursday in an exhibition dual under international rules.

Might that momentum carry the Beavers to wins No. 2 and 3 on the year? Defeating their opponents this weekend is no small task. MSU hosts third-ranked St. Cloud State and eighth-ranked Upper Iowa on Friday and Saturday, respectively, with each dual beginning at 7 p.m.

“I think there’s always momentum after a win, especially when everybody wins except for one guy,” MSU coach Robin Ersland said. “… I’m hoping that momentum carries over into our match with St. Cloud.”

Ersland said his team is fired up to take on the nation’s elite.

“They wanna wrestle those people,” he said. “They wanna wrestle the best. It’s a case of testing yourself against the best. It’s a case of basically getting a feel for how the best guys wrestle and then hopefully we can carry that over into regionals (which begin Feb. 28).”

Ryan Holmgren covers Minot State athletics and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgren.