Mesa men play better, but fall to No. 20 Mustangs
In the end, the No. 20 team in the nation was too big, too deep and too talented for the Colorado Mesa men’s basketball team.
And yet, the way the Mavericks battled Saturday night against Midwestern State had coach Andy Shantz smiling despite a 74-57 loss.
“It had that vibe,” Shantz said. “I asked them first thing, ‘Did you guys feel like you played different than last night, because I sure did.’ That’s a great team, top 20, and they’ll be in the regional this year. We just have to keep getting better and staying with the process, and these kids will. They like each other and they work their butts off.”
One night after playing what they called “selfish” basketball in a loss to Montana State-Billings, the Mavericks were back to playing their style. Part of that included a change in the starting lineup, with sophomore Brandon Hoffer returning to run the point, with Eimer Lopez sliding back to the wing and senior transfer James Sylvester coming off the bench.
“Give James credit, he handled it like pro,” Shantz said. “He came out and played, didn’t (complain) about not starting. I just felt we needed a little bit of change and Brandon is a heck of a leader and does a great job on both ends. He gives us that coach on the floor we need.”
Hoffer, who was slowed early in the season by a bad ankle sprain, responded with 10 points, three assists and one turnover, playing 30 minutes. Lopez, free to create and help out inside, had 10 points, as did Sylvester. CJ Davis, despite not feeling well, led the Mavericks (1-5) with a dozen points.
“This game, we had a lot better feel and rhythm,” Hoffer said. “We were getting the ball side to side. We had a couple mental errors, turnovers, but we got the shots we wanted. We just weren’t hitting them tonight. I thought it was a big improvement from (Friday) night.”
For the first 15 minutes, the Mavericks hung right with the Mustangs (6-1), leading 20-17 on a nice jumper off a screen and roll into the lane by Connor Nichols. Midwestern State, though, tied it, then went up 23-20 on a 3-pointer by Brandon Neel, and eased to a 32-23 halftime lead.
“Gosh, they’re pretty good, but I just felt like we competed,’’ Shantz said. “We ran our stuff and were unselfish. We’re not playing real well right now in terms of hitting shots, honestly, but that comes and goes. The second that turns, you can win 10 in a row.
“That’s about as good a defensive team as you’ll ever see, and a really good offensive team. I thought we really competed and guarded them.”
The Mavericks made sure to help in the post on defense against the bigger Mustangs, especially 6-foot-8 forward Igor Ibaka, often collapsing three defenders on him in the low post.
“He’s a big boy, he’s all elbows and arms and give our guys credit, we’re undersized and they’re going in there and competing their (tails) off and flying around,” Shantz said. “We’re trying to figure that out a little bit, too, how we have to play, and I think we took a good step tonight in that direction.”
Ibaka finished with 10 points, but Pat Smith got hot in the second half from the perimeter, knocking down three clutch 3-pointers and ended up with 19 points.
The biggest difference between Friday and Saturday was not only the effort the Mavericks played with, but the pace.
“Pace of play,” Hoffer said. “We’re good in the half-court when we make them guard. We can be hard to stop.”
Midwestern’s defense did get CMU sped up at times, and the Mustangs came away with 10 steals that they converted into layups or transition 3-pointers to help them build their lead.
Midwestern State scored 19 points off Mesa’s 13 turnovers.
Despite being in the game much of the first half, CMU shot only 28.6 percent from the field. The Mavericks improved to nearly 42 percent in the second, but had too many shots rattle in and out to keep pace with Midwestern, which shot 42 percent for the game and out-rebounded Mesa 50-37, which led to 16 second-chance points.
“We’ve lost some close games against some really good teams, but man, we’ve stayed together and they competed their butts off tonight,” Shantz said. “If you just keep doing that, staying together and playing, we’re going to start shooting the ball better here. Hopefully, sooner than later; it’s just the law of averages.”
Montana State-Billings 86, Western State 77: The Yellowjackets, who hit 11 3-pointers, broke a 36-36 halftime tie, and pulled away in the final minutes.
Preston Beverly and Jace Anderson scored 16 points each for Billings, which withstood the Mountaineers late rally. A 3-pointer by Ben Beauchamp cut the lead to nine points, 80-71, in the final minute. Beauchamp and Collin Smith each scored 17 points for Western.