Dan Weisse, the player, received the “fighter” label almost as soon as his career began and Dan Weisse, the coach, kept it. So it wasn’t unsurprising when Weisse stood outside his office Friday night and invoked one of boxing’s all-time greats.
It just wasn’t for the reason Weisse wanted.
“It’s the old Mike Tyson quote — ‘Everybody’s got a plan until you get punched in the mouth,’ ” Weisse said. “We got punched in the mouth.”
And when you get punched in the mouth by an endless procession of 6’8 dudes who can drive, shoot, rebound and jump out of the gym, it’s hard to get back up.
That’s what Minnesota Crookston men’s basketball discovered in a 101-68 slaughter at the hands of No. 21 Augustana on Friday. The Vikings did whatever they wanted, as long as they wanted, and the Golden Eagles were spared a bigger blowout only by the commonly-accepted standards of good sportsmanship.
No Golden Eagle cared to marvel, however. Augustana received its due credit, but the majority of the blame in the Minnesota Crookston locker room was directed inward.
“We gotta be better,” said Harrison Cleary, who stood outside a stairwell, elbows folded and head tilted down, the frustration of a 6-for-22 shooting night written all over his gray jacket and sweats. “They’re a good team, they can shoot the ball, but it all starts with us. If we play our defense and play defense well, we can take away a lot of that.”
When UMC won at Minnesota State Moorhead one week ago, it looked like the turning of a corner — not just that it was a close, conference road game, but that it was won by playing their defense and playing defense well. The Golden Eagles flew around the court, dove for loose balls and survived their shots simply not going in.
“We had no chance to win (on Friday),” Weisse said, “because we weren’t flying around on the defensive end, we weren't talking like we would like to talk, we weren't getting back in transition.”
UMC’s man-to-man defense doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel. Its mechanisms are simple and its ingredients are clearly written, meaning that as long as the necessary effort is there, things should turn out fine at the very least.
Forty-one baskets allowed on 68 attempts speaks for itself.
The Golden Eagles thought their gameplan was well-crafted. It wasn’t well-executed, however, which points to the essential difference between it and Augustana — the more talented Vikings don’t have to match UMC’s energy at all times. The Golden Eagles do, and the moment they let their guard down sealed their fate. And it certainly didn’t go unnoticed on them that Augustana did everything that they did in Moorhead but weren’t able to do on Friday.
“(The Vikings) are always being positive, always picking each other up,” said redshirt sophomore forward Zac Olson. “ … We didn’t match their energy like we should have.”
On Friday, Augustana wasn’t only the more talented team, but the more cohesive team as well. That's a recipe for a rout.
“First basket of the game for them, they just drive the ball down the floor and make a layup,” Weisse said. “It was like they were running faster than us in that situation. You can't have that stuff. You can't make really good teams better by doing things that you can control.”
Cleary stood in the same stairwell 22 hours later, coming off a stratospheric performance against Wayne State: 52 points on 27 shots, seven threes, 21-of-23 free throws. UMC beat the Wildcats, 92-78, and to the degree that labeling a game a "must-win" adds any significance, this was exactly what you'd call a must-win.
“We were aware of how bad we were, we watched the film on it,” Cleary said. “We just tried our best to put it behind us and come out with a clear head.”
The senior guard radiates the rare, laid-back braggadocio found only in the most preternaturally gifted scorers. There seems to be no reason, in his mind, why he can’t score as much as he wants in every game, as long as he gets to his spots. Even Saturday’s output almost snuck up out of nowhere. Blink, he’s got 17 at halftime. Blink, he’s at 35 with 11 minutes to play. Blink, there’s a program record and career high. Cleary was quiet, then he wasn’t, then it was too late for Wayne State.
This isn’t to say that Weisse is used to this yet, even after three-plus years. A player like Cleary is impossible to take for granted, but that’s how good he is — UMC has to be built around him to be its best. You can’t take him for granted, but you do have to accept him going nuclear as a prerequisite for some victories.
“It was a great performance and we needed that,” Weisse said. “But I'm still gonna tell you the game was won on the defensive end.”
That said, Weisse didn’t deny that his team’s defense could have been better. The Wildcats shot a higher percentage than the Golden Eagles and burned them on runs to start both halves. UMC missed its share of assignments and boxouts.
“We played harder, we had more urgency tonight,” said redshirt sophomore guard Brian Sitzmann. “We just (did) the little things tonight to get the win, rebounding and defensive positioning.”
That should sound familiar.
Eleven games into the season, the Golden Eagles are settling into who they are. Their offense, led by Cleary and a cadre of shooters surrounding him, can be elite. Their defense has athleticism and length. On offense, the story is usually how good Cleary is on any given night, or how much others get involved. On defense, it’s how well they communicate.
“I felt we got enough stops,” Weisse said. “It wasn't perfect, Wayne still scored a little more than I'd like … I just think the last 15 minutes of that game I thought we had the urgency we were looking for for the whole 40 minutes.”
Not every game will feature UMC’s best, on both sides of the ball, from tip to final buzzer. That’s very much okay. If it’s somewhere in the middle, like it was Saturday, that will usually be good enough to beat a team like 5-8 Wayne State by a comfortable margin at home, and less handily on the road. The Golden Eagles were Augustana from Friday: they could afford to be the tiniest bit sloppy and come out on top. As long as they weren’t sloppy when it mattered most.
“They say don't accept in victory what you wouldn’t in defeat,” Weisse said. “We won the game, but we still have a lot of things to work on. … I didn't think we had urgency for 40 minutes, but we did have it for the last 15 minutes of the second half.”
Minnesota Crookston played a solid basketball game on Saturday. It didn’t on Friday. What that adds up to, then, is this: the Golden Eagles’ “solid” is somewhere above that of the teams it has beaten thus far. It’s below the teams it has lost to.
If UMC is to make up that gap; if it is to have any margin for error against the NSIC's best; it will come down to the old staples. Focus. Energy. Leadership. Resilience. Teamwork. Bring those to the fight, and maybe the Golden Eagles can take a punch in the mouth — or even throw one back.
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