PITTSBURG — The Pittsburg State men were in need of a statement victory against a strong opponent to start off the second half of the season on the right foot. The Gorillas earned that win Saturday at John Lance when they handed rival Missouri Southern an 89-80 loss.
Pitt State (9-8, 4-7 MIAA) gave up a couple of quick baskets to Missouri Southern (10-4, 7-4 MIAA) to start the game in a small hole, but the Gorillas responded with a 14-2 run to build a seven-point advantage against the Lions five minutes into the game, and turned that lead into double digits by the half. The Gorillas’ defense limited the Lions’ offense down the stretch on the way to the win.
“It was fun to see them more engaged as a team tonight,” Pitt State head coach Kevin Muff said. “I thought we competed at a higher level than what we have been ... We beat a very good offensive team tonight, who I think will go very far in the postseason.”
That early run over the first five minutes of the game propelled the PSU offense over the next fifteen minutes of play, with the Pitt State men methodically building a 10-point lead by the intermission, 51-41.
“Defense feeds offense for us,” Muff said. “We did some good things [defensively] and we shot the ball very well.”
Josiah Gustafson had a huge first half with 14 points for Pitt State. He led the team in rebounding with seven.
For a period of nearly two minutes in game action — 8:59 to 7:01 — Gustafson had 10 straight points for the Gorillas, scoring three times from the field, to help push PSU’s lead to 39-28.
“Joe is unique because he is a competitive kid who wants to do well,” Muff said. “He is willing to shoulder the load offensively, or whatever it takes he is willing to do.”
A 3-pointer followed by a layup on the drive from Jaxon Holden with 3:09 to play in the opening half matched the highest lead of the first 20 minutes for PSU at 14 points, 46-32.
Holden was part of a Gorilla bench which outscored MSSU’s bench 34-9, including 19 from leading scorer Trey Starks, and 10 points from forward Denton Hays.
“I thought our bench was critical for us,” Muff said. “We got some big minutes from some key guys.”
The second half was all about maintaining the advantage for Pitt State, preventing the Lions from making a serious run to take away the momentum.
Southern threatened with five straight points to cut the difference to seven points, 48-55, with 15 minutes to play, but the Gorillas responded with eight unanswered of their own to pull back out to a 15-point advantage.
“We have a goal every half to get four three-straight stops,” Pitt State point guard Javis Flynn said. “We got back to our basic defensive methods that we used early but gave up for the last two months ... It was nice to get back to what we do, and how different we are.”
That theme continued for the PSU men, who seemed to have an answer for the Lions every time they made a big shot in the game.
Southern’s Austin Wright knocked down a 3-pointer pointer and Taevaunn Prince hit a pair of three throws near the midway mark of the second half to get back within single digits once more, but baskets from Lamine Dieng, Starks and Jones consecutively rebuilt the Gorilla lead.
The second half saw runs of five points or more a combined five times, with the Lions collecting three of those outputs.
Missouri Southern turned to the full-court trap defense with less than four minutes to play in the game, getting the lead down to six points.
The Lions would get no closer, as the Gorillas closed out the win with stops of their own, while knocking down late free throws.
“The guys deserve a lot of credit for that because I didn’t handle it very well,” Muff said laughing. “I was pretty dang nervous. We hadn’t been in a tight game for a while. To their credit, they responded well.”
Pitt State had five players finish with more than 10 points in the win over Missouri Southern.
Dieng finished the game with 14 points and five rebounds, while Jones scored 16 points in the PSU win.
The Lions were top heavy in terms of scoring, as Prince led the charge with 32 points on 7-of-14 shooting. He was 18 of 19 from the free-throw line and finished with eight rebounds and three assists.
Wright (12 points) and Isaac Kreuer (15 points) were the only other Southern players to finish in double figures.
The Pitt State men will be in action following the women’s game on Jan. 21 at Lindenwood.
Lucas Davis is the sports editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on twitter at @LDsportswriter.