It seems like the prevailing thought from Dakota Wesleyan's 86-59 win over Dordt last night at the Corn Palace can be summed up in one word: wow.
11:25 into the game, there probably weren't any people in the Corn Palace who thought the Tigers would end up winning by 27. At that point, DWU was down 18, 29-11, and the Defenders had just ripped off an 8-0, bookended by 3-pointers.
However, DWU came back with its own 6-0 run behind baskets from Ike Muoneke, Chase Walder and Mitch Bain, and then something drastic happened -- the Tigers turned up the D. The final 26 or 27 minutes, DWU played as good on defense as I've seen in my two years watching the Tigers. After the initial 18-point deficit, DWU outscored the Defenders 75-30 over the game's final 29 minutes, and they made life very uncomfortable for Dordt -- particularly leading-scorer Logan Kingma, who managed just five points.
The other promising trait that emerged Wednesday was the way the Tigers buried Dordt. DWU displayed an absolute killer instinct that, if they can carry it over, could serve them really well down the stretch. A team like the Defenders is more than capable of making a big run at almost any point, and the fact that DWU suffocated them and didn't allow that to happen should give the team confidence that it can put anybody away once it gets a lead in the second half.
In my experience, this isn't a trait teams simply possess, it's something they have to learn. Hopefully Wednesday was a sign that it's ingrained with DWU now. We'll see how this trait develops this weekend against Nebraska Wesleyan, who should be a decent test and a huge contrast of style, and especially Wednesday night when Briar Cliff comes to the Corn Palace.
If DWU can carry the two things it found Wednesday night - suffocating defense and the ability to put teams away - into the final month of the regular season, the Tigers should be right in the running for the GPAC crown.
However, a long look at the remaining schedule shows it won't be easy. DWU still goes to Morningside, Briar Cliff and Sioux Falls, and hosts the Chargers, Northwestern and conference-leading Concordia. It will be very interesting to see how many losses the GPAC champ finishes with. Morningside and Concordia have a little easier time with more games against the southern schools, so DWU's head-to-head matchups with those schools will be huge.
One last point - with how good DWU was on defense last night, it's easy to overlook what it did on the offensive end. However, the Tigers were shooting around 20 percent from the floor 12 minutes into the game. They finished above 50 percent as a team, including 70 percent in the second half. Part of that comes from getting hot, but a lot of it comes from running the offense efficiently and getting good shots and easy baskets. The Tigers got a lot of looks in close, and a lot of layups in transition. Once they started getting in the groove, the 3-pointers started falling too, to the tune of 75 percent in the second half. It was a snowball effect on both ends of the floor last night.
DWU will host three big games over the next week and a half -- Sunday vs. Nebraska Wesleyan, Wednesday vs. No. 11 Briar Cliff and next Sunday vs. Hastings. Do yourself a favor and catch them on this home stand -- they'll need to play well and build momentu before traveling to Morningside.