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Deal: DWU men making strong case for NAIA berth

Dakota Wesleyan's Trae Vandeberg (3) goes to the basket through the Northwestern defense during a Great Plains Athletic Conference game earlier this season at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

One month ago, Dakota Wesleyan University men's basketball coach Matt Wilber talked about seeing what his team is made of down the stretch.

After five wins in the last seven games, the Tigers once again have the look of an NAIA Division II national tournament team for the fourth straight season.

"We have a chance to prove ourselves and we've got a make-or-break situation," Wilber told The Daily Republic last month. "It's one of those where we are in complete control of what we've got in front of us and we will see what we are made of that way."

DWU has proven itself late in the season. The Tigers faced a daunting six-game schedule to close the regular season and they answered the bell. The Tigers knocked off Briar Cliff, Northwestern College and Concordia University. DWU also avenged a defeat against Hastings College, with an 87-67 win against the Broncos in the opening round of the Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament on Wednesday.

The Tigers' other loss during the seven-game stretch came against Morningside College. DWU can avenge that defeat on Saturday when it plays the Mustangs in the GPAC semifinals at 3 p.m. in Sioux City, Iowa. Morningside has already secured a national tourney berth, as it won the GPAC regular season title outright.

Regardless of Saturday's outcome, DWU (22-9) is in good position to make the trip to Sioux Falls, which is the site of this year's NAIA Division II men's basketball tournament. Wilber said as much after Wednesday's win over Hastings College.

"I think now we are probably set," Wilber said. "We still have got stuff to do, but we are probably set on Sioux Falls and that was a goal."

And the way DWU has done it has been impressive. DWU sophomore guard and second-leading scorer Ty Hoglund has missed the last three games with a foot injury.

The Tigers have won three of those games, with different players stepping up along the way. Tyson Smiley and Aaron Ahmadu have helped hold down the guard spot in Hoglund's absence, while Trae Vandeberg has played at a high level. The Madison product has averaged 21.6 points per game in the past three games.

"He's carried us," Wilber said. "Teams are face guarding him now and he's just playing better. Teams are focusing on him defensively without Ty and you are seeing how good that guy is."

Just like the rest of the Tigers.