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Opinion: Painful loss brings on what-ifs for DWU

The Dakota Wesleyan University men's basketball team has exceeded a lot of expectations this season. It started the season minus its star and the reigning GPAC player of the year, Preston Broughton. After a few tough losses and some rough patches...

The Dakota Wesleyan University men's basketball team has exceeded a lot of expectations this season.

It started the season minus its star and the reigning GPAC player of the year, Preston Broughton.

After a few tough losses and some rough patches, the Tigers began to establish themselves as one of the top teams in the GPAC and, maybe, the country.

Then, a little better than midway through the season, Dakota Wesleyan suffered another loss. Its new star, and the second-leading scorer in the league, Colby Fitzgerald went down with an injury Jan. 21 and had to have season-ending knee surgery.

This time, the Tigers didn't even seem to miss a beat. They manhandled the Chargers, 90-68, then went on a five-game winning streak that included an overtime win at Morningside which, at the time, was at the top of the GPAC.

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After taking over first in the conference, the Tigers knew they had to be extra careful, because they were no longer the underdogs. Down two stars or not, they were still one of the top teams in the GPAC and even the NAIA.

DWU's eight-game winning streak was snapped Feb. 14 at Briar Cliff, which was almost to be expected, considering one of the Chargers set a new school record for the number of made three-pointers in a game.

Even with the loss, the Tigers were still at the top of the league. They almost sealed the regular-season conference title Feb. 18 with a win against Concordia, but a pesky Morningside team made a dramatic comeback against Northwestern and secured its only lead of the game in the final seconds and won by a single point.

DWU had a second chance at the title -- as well as an automatic bid to the national tournament and home-court advantage throughout the GPAC postseason tournament -- Saturday at the University of Sioux Falls.

On paper, it looked like a cakewalk. The Cougars were 6-11 in the conference and on a five-game losing streak that included a double-digit loss to Mount Marty, which was 2-14 in the conference at the time.

But Saturday's game was anything but a cakewalk for DWU. USF shot better than 51 percent from the field and held the Tigers to 38 percent shooting.

With that loss, the GPAC regular-season title, which seemed so far away at the beginning of the season and was close enough to touch last week, was gone. With that loss, the road to the national tournament got a little longer, as DWU now has to either win the postseason tournament or receive an at-large bid.

Bring on the what-ifs.

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What if Fitzgerald hadn't hurt his knee? The second-leading scorer in the conference could have been hard at work and adding 15 or 20 or more points to DWU's score each game. The Tigers could have won at Briar Cliff or Sioux Falls, or maybe both.

What if Broughton had been with the team this season? DWU could possibly have had only two or three losses at this point, and sealed up the GPAC title several games ago.

The Tigers knew heading into Saturday's game that it was theirs to win -- or lose. They hadn't been expected to get this far without Broughton and Fitzgerald, and if they lost, maybe no one would really be surprised. Winning a title is a lofty goal, after all, without your two best players.

But DWU knows, and has proved in the past weeks, that it is a good enough team to win the title, even without Broughton and Fitzgerald. It beat some of the top teams in the conference and had three consecutive GPAC players of the week.

Ike Muoneke said Friday that the Tigers deserved the title, they just had to go take it. USF prevented that, so now DWU has to take the long road to proving itself.

The Tigers need to conquer that road and get all the what-ifs out of the picture. A storybook season like this can't end with a what-if.

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