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Away they go: Blue Hawks hit the road for tough stretch of conference play

Bellevue senior Jaffery Stillman blocks DSU senior Marcus White's shot in a game last season on Dec. 9 at Scott Gymnasium. (Press File Photo)

The Blue Hawks want revenge.

On Friday, Jan. 12, the Dickinson State men's basketball team travels to Nebraska to take on Bellevue University, the team that defeated the Blue Hawks in the North Star Athletic Association championship game last season.

The teams split in the regular season, each taking a win, but in the conference championship, the Bruins came out on top 74-57.

"We're ready to go. We're just trying to get them back for last year," senior guard/forward Marcus White said. "This game is not as important until the conference tournament comes. We're not nervous at all. We're ready."

Dickinson State stands second in the conference with a 5-1 record while Bellevue is 3-3.

"They're a really good team. They're record in the conference doesn't indicate how good of a team they are," Dickinson State head coach Josh Vaughan said. "They're really guard oriented, trying to get in the paint a lot. I emphasize just trying to keep them out of the lane which should be really hard to do."

The Blue Hawks (9-6, 5-1 NSAA) are looking to keep dramatically outscoring opponents while cracking down on defense.

They have the greatest scoring margin in the league, topping their opponents by an average of 16.2 points. Dickinson State also has the second high producing offense in the league with 88.33 points per game, just a few points behind Jamestown's 92.5 points per game.

White, the second highest scorer in the league, leads the Blue Hawks with 18.87 points a game.

The Bruins (11-8, 3-3 NSAA) don't have an equivalent to White. Instead, they have four players averaging 13 points or more against conference opponents. Senior BJ Shelton averages a team-leading 14.3 points a game.

"It just makes them harder to guard. You can't really focus on one guy," Vaughan said. "Probably their main guy is Shelton but other than that, they have a ton of guys who can go off on any given night so you've got to make sure you're doing a good job as a team and not focusing on one guy."

Defense has been a focus for Vaughan all season, and it seems to be working. The Blue Hawks lead the league with 4.27 blocks and 7.07 steals per game, thanks in part to junior guard/forward Austin Payne.

Payne, a 6-foot-5 California native, has 10 steals over 15 games played. He boasts a team-leading 14 blocks and his average of 0.93 blocks per game is good for second best in the conference.

"Honestly, I just try to use my length as best as possible and my athletic abilities," Payne said. "Also, just focus on what's going on in the situation. If it's late in the shot clock, I know certain players are more prone to shoot and more players are prone to draw."

Over the past few games, Payne has logged more minutes than weeks prior, and scored 29 of his 91 points in the last three games.

"It's just a product of him playing really well and kind of the lineups we've been going with," Vaughan said. "A little bit of the time he'll play the four or the five. He's really long, really athletic. He's been able to use his athleticism to help us there with defensive rebounding and getting by people."

The trip to Nebraska is the second of four straight away games for the Blue Hawks.

The Blue Hawks started the road trip with a 79-71 win over Dakota State (S.D.) on Friday, Jan. 5. Along with the win, they walked away with a few more things to work on.

"After watching Dakota State, and these guys watching it, there's still a lot of room for improvement," Vaughan said. "There's little things we can get better at. We're never going to shut the other team out, but just making it hard for the other team to score."

The win also kicked off the conference potion of the schedule, as the Blue Hawks only face NSAA teams from now on.

Getting into the heart of the conference season, it's just every game is tough," Vaughan said. "There's not any game you can show up and expect to win. It's never going to be like that."

With nine seniors on the squad who saw the same section of schedule last season, the Blue Hawks shouldn't be affected by the tough stretch ahead.

"As long as we play hard and play as a team on the road or at home, it doesn't matter to us," White said.