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UMC proves its flexibility, balance in season-opening split

Jacob Shames
Crookston Times
Brian Sitzmann is averaging 13 points and 4.5 rebounds per game this season, and leads the Golden Eagles in scoring.

When Minnesota Crookston men's basketball went into halftime with a 40-34 lead over Concordia-St. Paul on Sunday, coach Dan Weisse had a reminder for his team.

The Golden Eagles had taken a big lead in the early minutes and led by 11 with five minutes before halftime — almost exactly the same margin they led by at that point on Saturday. In that game, UMC surrendered a 47-13 run between the first and second halves as a quick start turned into an 80-56 defeat.

Weisse went home frustrated that day, knowing that the Golden Bears made adjustments and his team didn't. Sunday, he aimed to correct that.

And this time, when CSP made its second-half push, the Golden Eagles had a response. After a Jax Madson 3-pointer cut the lead to 58-57, UMC went on a 9-2 run over the next four minutes. When the Golden Bears answered that run by outscoring the Golden Eagles 15-7 over the last six minutes, junior guard Georges Darwiche scored six points in overtime, including an and-1 to take the lead for good, to seal an 84-80 slugfest victory.

"Still not perfect," Weisse said. "... But when the going got tough in the second game, we fought through it."

Last season, when opponents went on long runs, Weisse frequently noted that his players "felt sorry" for themselves, and as a result, the runs snowballed on the dejected Golden Eagles. While Saturday's loss was deja vu all over again, Sunday couldn't have been farther away.

"We had a lot more fight," Weisse said. "A lot more, 'Alright, a couple plays didn't go our way, we can't get our heads down, we need to step up and make the next play.' I thought that simple mentality, that attitude adjustment served us extremely well."

It wasn't just the mental shift, though.

The biggest change Concordia-St. Paul made on Saturday was to switch every ball screen, which UMC was completely unprepared for, and shot just 7-of-27 against. But after having seen what went wrong, the Golden Eagles were able to attack the switches the second time around.

When a CSP big man switched onto Darwiche or Brian Sitzmann, the two guards utilized their quickness to blow by their defenders instead of settling. Sitzmann finished with 19 points and Darwiche scored 18, as the Golden Bears' forwards and centers were unable to match their drives to the hoop.

Minnesota Crookston also dropped back farther on defense, meaning that Sitzmann and Darwiche didn't pick up Concordia's ball-handlers right away. Instead, they played higher up on the court, almost packing the paint to prevent the easy layups which had killed the Golden Eagles a day earlier.

And when the Golden Bears went small, as they did often, Ibu Jassey Demba stepped up. The senior, normally a small forward, played as a small-ball center for stretches of Sunday's game, and more than held his own down low. He scored 12 points, knocked down two 3-pointers, grabbed eight rebounds and recorded three steals, including a potential game-saving takeaway in the final seconds.

"We're trying to get him to be a complete player, to play inside and outside," Weisse said. "We want him to play the '5' this year as an athletic big that can switch some things. Sometimes as a coach I question a couple of his shots because they're quick, but you look at the stats and he's shooting 2-for-4. When his feet are set, he's a really good outside shooter."

The Golden Eagles had four players score in double figures Sunday, including freshman guard Josh Dilling, who Weisse singled out for his poise down the stretch. Sophomore Quintin Winterfeldt didn't play much in the first game, but against CSP's smaller lineup, the 6-foot-4 swingman found his niche: while he scored just six points, his 30 minutes were marked by strong defense.

"He's one of our better defenders when he stays disciplined," Weisse said. "He's one of our better athletes, and he's physical. ... From here on out, I think that's something we could look to do at some point first or second half or both."

Before the season began, Weisse figured that a deep rotation would be one of his team's biggest strengths. Getting major contributions, scoring or otherwise, from a large number of players this weekend proved him correct. And it enabled Minnesota Crookston to respond strategically to whatever Concordia-St. Paul threw its way.

As a result, when the going got tough, so did the Golden Eagles.

UP NEXT: UMC hosts Minnesota State Moorhead this weekend, Jan, 8-9. Friday's game tips off at 5:30 p.m., and Saturday's game begins at 1:30 p.m.

Fans are still not allowed inside Lysaker Gymnasium, but both games are streaming on the Golden Eagle Sports website.

The Times welcomes your feedback. You can send any comments or questions to our office at (218) 281-2730 or sports editor Jacob Shames at jshames@crookstontimes.com.

Follow along on Twitter @crookstonsports and @Jacob_Shames for all the latest stories and live game updates.