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MW MENS BASKETBALL: Bluejays ready to take on Vermilion

COON RAPIDS -- Win and they were in. That is all the Minnesota West Bluejays had to do in order to secure a spot in the NJCAA Men's Basketball Region 13 Tournament.

"We knew the playoffs were pretty much starting for us that game," Bluejay sophomore guard Luke Roddy said of MW's 90-74 victory over Riverland Sunday. "We knew we had to win or else there was no way we could keep playing. It was a good win to get because we had been struggling for sure."

The win improved Minnesota West to 13-13 overall and 6-8 in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference Southern Division, which was good enough for the fourth seed.

"We knew that going into that game that it was a playoff game," MW sophomore forward Mitch Hopkins said. "We knew that it was a win-or-go-home type of situation for us. Our goal was to go out and win the game. The intensity was awesome and we went out there and got that big win we needed to push us into the post season."

Before sneaking into the playoffs with a win in the their final game of the season, the Bluejays suffered a string of tough losses, including home losses to Western Tech and Anoka-Ramsey as well as road losses to St. Cloud Tech and Rochester.

"Some of those losses were really tough," Hopkins said. "They were tough losses but they were also great mental challenges for us to see how we could respond. But that last game, we were able to come together and say, 'Hey, we can do this. These guys might be able to beat us, but they are coming to our place and we can beat them now.'"

As the fourth seed in the South, the Bluejays face the Vermilion Ironmen (25-2) who claimed the No. 1 seed in the Northern Division with a 13-1 conference record.

"Rebounding will be a big key for us in this game," MW coach Justin Heckenlaible said. "The other part for us is that we need to execute on offense. We need to be patient and get good shots. When we get those good shots we have to make them and capitalize on them."

The Bluejays lost by just one point to the nationally ranked Ironmen (No. 6 on the NJCAA DIII poll) in their one meeting earlier this season, but Roddy and the rest of the team know that the playoffs are not the same as the regular season.

"We know how good we can play when we do play together and we know we can compete with every team," Roddy said. "The intensity is just so much higher in the state tournament, so you have to be ready for that.

"We have to be mentally prepared and tough minded for the game too. We just have to go out there and prove ourselves."

Although Minnesota West is the fourth seed and finished the season under .500 in the Southern Division, Hopkins knows that none of that matters when it comes to the post season.

"These playoff games are basically no holds barred and that is the mindset we have going in," Hopkins said. "We know we can't hold anything back. You are on the big stage now and the goal was to make it here. There should be no stress because we are here and we should be able to just go out and play our game."

If the Bluejays are going to knock off the No. 1 seed, they will need a whole team effort as well as a strong start to begin Friday's game.

"A big thing for us would to get out to a big lead early, maybe get some offensive rebounds and some putbacks," Hopkins said. "I think that could really give us a big jolt at the beginning of the game and help us to not have a letdown.

"These are long games, but if we can keep it close throughout the first half that will give us confidence that we can beat these guys."

Tip-off for the quarterfinal matchup is scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Coon Rapids with the winner advancing to play again Saturday.

"We can't be satisfied with just getting to the playoffs," Heckenlaible said. "It is going to be a high intensity game on a big stage and we know that we have nothing to lose. We are going to go out and play our game and see if that is going to be good enough. And I think it will be."

Daily Globe Reporter Jordan Willi

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