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College men’s basketball: UMD’s Blair bounces back to shoot down Golden Eagles as Bulldogs improve to 9-0

UMD’s leading scorer found his shooting touch just when the Bulldogs needed it the most.

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Minnesota Duluth's Charlie Katona closes out on a shot attempt by Minnesota Crookston's Uzo Dibiamaka during a men's basketball game Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021 at Romano Gym in Duluth. The shot fell short of the rim and led to a shot-clock violation. Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune
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The Minnesota Duluth men’s basketball team kept getting the ball to Drew Blair, and the junior sharpshooter knew what to do with it.

Fire away, and when Blair did just that, it was nothing but … nothing.

Zip. Zero. Zilch. Clank City.

Blair, however, saved his best for last as he scored all 12 of his points after halftime, including 10 in the last 2:21 as UMD improved to 9-0 by holding off Minnesota-Crookston 75-68 in NSIC action Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, before 764 at Romano Gym in Duluth.

“Drew is a guy who wants the ball at crunch time,” UMD coach Justin Wieck said. “He gets guarded harder and more physically than anybody else on the wing because of who he is. I’m proud of him for sticking with it and making two or three huge shots for us and free throws. He turned it on for us at the end, and that was huge.”

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Jack Middleton had 22 points to lead the Bulldogs (9-0 overall, 3-0 NSIC) while Austin Andrews had 21 points and 15 rebounds.

Blair, UMD’s leading scorer at 16 points per game, didn’t have a good game statistically, finishing just 3 of 14 from the floor and turning the ball over three times. The frustration was clearly visible and apparent to everyone in attendance slapped his hands and shook his head as if to say, “What’s going on here?”

“I couldn’t believe it. It was frustrating, but you’ve got just to stick with it,” Blair said. “I was just praying one would fall eventually. I was getting good looks, and that’s what made it even more frustrating. I know I can get animated out there.”

But he did stick with it. First he sank a couple free throws (bouncing them in off the rim), then a while later he sank a jumper, showing off that shooter’s touch, again, getting the bounces, up and down and up and in, waking a sleeping Blair.

He was just getting warmed up. What came next were a couple 3-pointers from NBA range and a couple free throws to help ice it.

“I love having the ball at the end of the game, I love taking shots like that,” Blair said. “The last couple minutes of the game, that’s when the biggest players have to step up and take big shots and take their team down the stretch and I know my team relies on me to do that. I tried my best to take our team to the finish line.”

Crookston (4-5, 1-2), which has a multinational lineup with players from all over, including Canada, China, England and Australia, got 21 points from Ethan Channel. The Golden Eagles also got 14 apiece from Leonard Dixon and their lone Minnesota native, Brian Sitzmann, who coach Dan Weisse credited with playing great defense on Blair.

“Duluth has a really good team, but our guys really battled to contest their shots,” Weisse said. “They’ve got shooters all over the place and Andrews does a great job inside. I was happy with how we handled adversity the entire game; we didn’t handle it very well our last game and it snowballed on us (an 82-50 home loss to St. Cloud State). It didn’t go our way, but if we keep playing like that, we’ll win some games. Duluth is well-coached. They’ve got good players and tough kids, but today, we had good players and tough kids, too. The key for us will be consistency.”

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UMD is used to starting off fast, but not in this one, as the Golden Eagles raced out to a 14-5 lead. The Bulldogs got back in it, in part due to a crazy sequence where Middleton made a couple free throws, then made a couple technical free throws (called against the Crookston bench) and then scored a basket — six points, just like that.

The slow start prompted an early timeout by Wieck.

“I just challenged them to wake up, honestly," Wieck said. “We didn’t have a lot of energy. We weren’t good on defense and we weren’t moving on offense. Our guys have been good all year, so it wasn’t freak-out mode, but it was just challenging them to be ourselves and pick up the energy, and they did. I think our bench did a great job getting us going, and our guys were fine after that.”

Minnesota-Crookston 28-40—68
Minnesota Duluth 37-38—75
Minnesota-Crookston — Leonard Dixon 14, Zen Goodridge 2, Ethan Channel 21, Uzo Dibiamaka 13, Brian Sitzmann 14, Marcus Thompson 4. Totals 25 6-10 68.
3-point goals — Dixon 3, Channel 4, Dibiamaka 3, Sitzmann 2.
Minnesota Duluth — Charlie Katona 8, Austin Andrews 21, Joshua Brown 3, Jack Middleton 22, Drew Blair 12, Joshua Strong 2, Jacob Shields 5, Lincoln Meister 2. Totals 25 16-21 75.
3-point goals — Brown, Middleton 3, Blair 2, Shields.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnew.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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