Mesa State men’s basketball team headed to Minnesota

What a difference a year makes.

Last March, the Mesa State College men’s basketball team huddled over pizza in a classroom at Saunders Fieldhouse and hoped to see its name in the field of 64 teams in the NCAA Division II national playoffs.

When the Mavericks weren’t selected, they quietly tossed the pizza boxes in the trash and filed out, trying to figure out what to do over spring break.

Sunday night, the Mavericks sat in one of the luxury skyboxes above Brownson Arena, eating a catered pasta dinner and devouring German chocolate cake, relaxed, knowing they were in.

When Mesa State was called as the No. 2 seed in the Central Region tournament, the Mavs smiled and applauded — they were too busy texting their friends and families to celebrate.

“You always want to know who you’re playing and who you’re going to match up against, but it’s good to be in,” said senior guard Jase Herl, who took last year’s snub and turned it into this season’s driving force. “That part’s over and now we have to start getting ready.”

The Mavericks (19-5) play seventh-seeded Winona State (Minn.) University (16-9) on Saturday. Times will be determined today.

The Central Region bracket was the first announced, with Minnesota State-Mankato earning the No. 1 seed.

“We were locked in, the kids did such a great job early in the year taking care of business and putting us in a position where we knew we were going to be in a regional,” coach Jim Heaps said.

The biggest surprise of the night came when Mankato’s opponent was called, Colorado School of Mines, which had been ranked No. 10 in last week’s regional poll. The Orediggers moved up two spots, over the University of Mary and Fort Lewis College after all three teams lost in the first round of the conference playoffs.

Mines’ strength of schedule kept improving as Metro State kept winning in the RMAC tournament, because the Orediggers beat the Roadrunners twice this season.

New Mexico Highlands (16-9) received the No. 6 seed and plays Augustana (S.D.) (18-6) in the first round. Fifth-seeded Metro State (19-6) plays St. Cloud State (20-5) in a battle of conference tournament champions.

The Fort Lewis women received the No. 1 seed and will host the regional starting Friday in Durango. The Skyhawks play Colorado Mines; Wayne State (Neb.) plays CSU-Pueblo; Augustana faces Minnesota-Duluth and Concordia-St. Paul plays Adams State.

“It was kind of what I expected,” senior forward Michael Dominguez said of the seeds. “We’re just excited to know who we play, that’s the main thing.

“I’m going to go get on the Internet tonight and start looking at their stuff.”

The teams’ lone common opponent is Adams State. Winona beat the Grizzlies 60-53 in December; the Mavericks split the home-and-home conference series.

The Mavs’ loss to CSU-Pueblo in the first round of the RMAC Shootout has them refocused.

“We definitely have to be playing like we have nothing to lose because now we don’t,” Herl said. “Every game could be our last game. We’ve got to play that way and play with desperation, just like Pueblo did when they came in here and beat us.”

Junior forward Lance Fite couldn’t help but smile when he saw the seniors’ faces as Mesa State was called on the Internet selection show.

“It’s good to see the seniors know for sure they were in,” he said. “The last couple of years they were biting their nails. It was nice to be sitting with them and watch their faces and see our name. It was a cool feeling.”

It will be the Mavs’ first regional appearance since 2004 and fifth trip to the Division II playoffs. They have yet to win in the postseason.

Heaps, who sat back and watched as his players achieved their season-long goal to reach the regionals, recalled the disappointment of last season and how that set the tone for this season.

“Our kids really took that to heart,” he said. “It wasn’t anything we talked about. It never came me or the coaching staff. The kids locked on to that last year and this time and it was something they wanted to accomplish and feel like they belonged.

“The goals that come from them are the strongest ones and they obviously felt from the start that’s where they wanted to be, and they played at a high level from the start.

“It’s a cool experience, something they’ll remember for a long time.”


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