While it didn't happen right away, the No. 1 seed MSU Mustangs finally pulled away from eighth-seeded Texas A&M-Commerce in the second half and advanced to the semifinals of the LSC Championships with a 92-84 win over the Lions.
The biggest reason for the Mustangs' second-half surge was simple: Kevin Grayer.
The senior guard might have been a second-team All-LSC selection, but he was all-world for the Mustangs Wednesday night. Grayer poured in a career-high 33 points on 11 of 16 shooting. Grayer was also 8 of 9 from the free-throw line. And if he wasn't scoring, Grayer was coming up with loose rebounds, getting key steals or even blocking a key 3-point attempt as the Lions were trying to get back in the game. The emphatic capper occurred in the final seconds when Grayer made a steal in the open and slammed through a one-handed jam for the final points of the game.
But Grayer wasn't the only star for the Mustangs, who also got a career-high performance from Derek Kaster, who scored 18 points and had six rebounds.
The Mustangs also had 14 points off the bench by Keith Spellman. Chris Buttermore scored nine, including some big shots in the first-half to halt two different runs by Commerce.
In the second half, MSU shot 69 percent from the field (20 of 29) and finished the game 58.3 percent and 7 of 14 from 3-point land.
The Lions were led by a strong outing from Andrew Davis, who had 18 points and 12 rebounds. Preston Whitley led his team with 19 points, while Stefon Carson and Devondrick Walker each scored 13.
The Lions' season ends with a 14-15 record, while MSU advances to Friday night's semifinal game against the winner of Incarnate Word/Texas A&M-Kingsville in Thursday's 4-5 game. The victory improves MSU to 20-7 overall this year and gives the Mustangs their fourth straight 20-win season and the fifth in the past six years.
This also marked the third straight year the Mustangs defeated A&M-Commerce in the LSC Championship quarterfinal round. The Lions gave MSU its first LSC loss back in early January but the Mustangs returned the favor with an 18-point win on Feb. 20.
But this rubber match Wednesday night was quite a battle early on as the Lions and Mustangs traded the lead several times in the first half. Commerce led 41-38 until MSU finished the first half with a 7-0 run. And then in the second half, MSU used another 7-0 run, which included five points from Grayer.
MSU eventually pushed the lead to 18 but Commerce trimmed it to 11 before another turning point occurred. Carson had an open lane to the basket but missed a dunk attempt, resulting in the Mustangs' possession. Quickly the other way, Grayer buried a 3-pointer to move the lead back to 14.
The Mustangs led by as much as 20 but a few late 3-pointers for Commerce, along with some missed free throws by MSU, gave the Lions a chance to cut into the final score.
The LSC Championships kicked off Wednesday with a pair of shocking upsets with the No. 2 seeds.
But thanks to a career-high 27 points from Diana Jones, Midwestern State's women's team made sure it was a different story with the No. 1 seed. The top-ranked Mustangs left no doubt against No. 8 Eastern New Mexico, cruising to an 85-70 win over the Zias to advance to the semifinals on Friday. MSU will play the winner of the 4/5 game between Tarleton State and Incarnate Word.
"I'm proud of my team," MSU coach Noel Johnson said. "They came to play today. We've talked about having a killer mentality and we showed that today. That's what we wanted to see."
Along with Jones, who was a perfect 11 of 11 from the free-throw line, MSU had four players in double-figure scoring. Kirsti Degelia scored 22, Andrea Carter had 15 and Shatoia Gober notched a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
"These are just great players," Johnson said. "DJ (Jones) does a great job of pushing in transition and was looking to score tonight. KK (Degelia) is either going to score and draw a foul."
The win was the first postseason victory for the Mustangs since 2002 as they are making just their second appearance in the LSC Championship in the last 11 years. The No. 2 ranked team in the South Central Region, MSU improved to 22-5.
The season ends for Eastern New Mexico with a final record of 7-22.
The Zias had four players in double figures, led by Jordyn Cooper's 19 points. Hanna Altheide and Jasmine Johnson each scored 11 and Nelsha Peterson scored 10. Altheide also had a game-high 11 boards.
Eastern New Mexico turned the ball over 26 times. Carter, Gober and Shambreka Jones had three steals each.
After a slow start by both teams led to a 4-4 tie, the Mustangs went on a 9-0 run, sparked by a basket each by Degelia, Carter, Gober and Jones. From there, MSU controlled the first half and led 40-30 at the half.
"I feel like these kids are flipping the switch during this third season," Johnson said. "It's about us and what we can control. When we can combine athleticism with execution, we can be pretty special."