Vikings 'tougher team' vs. Highlands

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By Dave Kavanaugh

The learning curve was harsh Saturday for the New Mexico Highlands Cowboys in their first-ever NCAA postseason appearance.

After a promising start in the Central Regional opener against Augustana (S.D.), Highlands fell into a shooting funk midway through the first half and couldn’t recover. Final score: Vikings 87, Cowboys 73.

“Well, welcome to regionals,” said NMHU head coach Joe Harge in a postgame news conference. “Coach (Tom) Billeter has done a great job in preparing his team and getting them ready. I thought at times it was an ugly game, but that’s something you have to prepare for ... We as a relatively new team to the regionals, that’s something you’ve got to expect ...  The tougher team will win and in the end they were the tougher team.”

Roman Andrade, Highlands’ leading scorer and recent honoree on the All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference first team, led the Cowboys (20-11) with 25 points.

“They played good (defense),” Andrade said. “They’re a good team; they’re well disciplined. They stayed home and didn’t gamble a lot, so they contested a lot of our shots ... I think it was a rough night shooting more than anything.”

Harge noted that a few mistakes proved costly for his bunch. At one point, the Cowboys had rallied to get the deficit down to 10 points but gave up a couple of big plays, like a Cameron McCaffrey three-pointer.

“You have to play possession basketball at that point,” he said. “Those are mistakes you have to minimize.”

Another big factor may have been the early loss of starter Chris Dunn, who was ticketed with a flagrant foul and ejected for elbowing one of the Vikings four minutes before half.

“I didn’t think it was a flagrant foul,” Harge said, though he added that the official had a different perspective. “I feel bad for Chris because that’s the way his career ended ... Chris is a good kid; it wasn’t malice (or) intent.”

Harge said he did miss his big, athletic forward the rest of the game. “Chris does a lot for us,” he said. “He cleans mistakes up at the basket.”

NMHU led 17-13 with 13:50 left in the first half. Then came an offensive drought and a 19-0 Viking run over the next seven and a half minutes. The gap reached 21; then NMHU scored eight in a row to draw within 44-34. But a defensive breakdown enabled Augustana (23-6) to close the half with seven straight points.

David Foster (25 points), Cody Shilling (20) and Nathan Truex (12) scored in doubles for the Vikings.

A key distinction between the teams is postseason experience. Augustana is in the national playoffs a third straight season and a seventh time overall. This year’s nationals berth is a first for NMHU, which posted back-to-back 20-win seasons under Harge.

“In the program, as we move forward, it’s a learning experience for us,” Harge said.

Chop Tang, one of the key offseason additions for Harge, found himself back in his old hometown of Mankato, Minn., host of the regional — one of eight across the country.

He expressed mixed feelings about the experience: “It was fun ... (but) it didn’t turn out well. It was good seeing everybody back, though.”