EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Northwest men’s basketball plowed past Saint Anselm 76-53 in the NCAA Division II Final Four matchup March 28 in Evansville, Indiana.
A day after narrowly surviving a 55-51 quarterfinal dogfight against Mercyhurst, the Bearcats left little doubt in their matchup with Saint Anselm, shooting 53.3 percent from the field en route to their 37th consecutive victory.
Northwest, which trailed for much of the first half, found its rhythm in the latter part of the game and, for one more contest, will keep dancing. The Bearcats will play in their second national title game in three years March 30.
“I thought we made shots,” coach Ben McCollum said. “I thought starting Joey (Witthus) when he wasn’t quite ready to go hurt our rhythm a little bit. And we missed some good looks in that first half that we normally would hit … In the second half, I thought we controlled it again. We got back to who we are.”
For Northwest, the game was defined by gutsy performances and a seemingly unrelenting will to win. Witthus, the senior swingman who missed most of the second half of the quarterfinal matchup against Mercyhurst with a hip injury, started versus Saint Anselm but recorded zero points in the first half.
Freshman guard Diego Bernard, who was sidelined for the entirety of the Mercyhurst matchup, provided a spark off the bench for Northwest in the Final Four, dropping 13 points and grabbing five boards while fighting through a lower-leg injury.
“We had some injuries going into the game and guys just kind of played through them, really,” McCollum said. “I thought that was the difference in the game: our kids’ will to win and will to want to get to that national title game and have an opportunity to win your last game. I mean, I can’t say enough about them.”
Witthus, who logged just under nine minutes in the second half against Mercyhurst while wincing his way through most of them, had little doubt after the quarterfinals in regards to his availability for the Final Four. Regardless of the pain shooting from his left hip through his 6-foot-7-inch frame, Witthus was going to play.
“No,” Witthus said when asked if his availability for the game was in jeopardy. “I knew that I was going to have to fight through it.”
In fighting through his injury, Witthus scored 14 second-half points and sparked Northwest’s offense after the break, helping the Bearcats outscore the Hawks 45-24 in the half. Freshman guard Trevor Hudgins, who led Northwest offensively for the second night in a row, this time scoring 27, said Witthus’ presence in the game was paramount.
“Joey Witthus came back in, he was questionable (to play), but he just played normal,” Hudgins said. “He played a great game. He came into the second half and dominated.”
Witthus, of course, took minimal credit in regards to his unflinching performance. He credited the team’s training staff, the team’s system and, as always, his teammates.
“So many people stepped up in that game,” Witthus said. “It just shows what we’ve been saying all year: the unselfishness that this team has and just how special it is that everyone’s ready to step up at the right time. These last two games have really been team wins.”
Over the last two nights, Northwest’s roster has taken the stage in stride, refusing to be swallowed by the moment. Against Mercyhurst, it was Hudgins, freshman guard Xavier Rhodes and junior forward Tyler Dougherty stepping up in a dire fourth quarter.
Against Saint Anselm, it was Witthus, Bernard and Hudgins again, and in some ways, the whole team. Northwest took a slim 31-29 lead into the locker room and shot just 1-of-12 from three before the break, missing its first nine attempts.
But as the second half unfolded, the Bearcats put the Hawks away.
“We knew what was on the line,” Witthus said. “We just really tried to come out with energy and just give it our all (in the second half). ... People were focused in on the scouting report and what we were trying to do. The energy that we gave and the energy that our fans give is so big for us.”
For the second time in two days, Northwest squared off against a worthy opponent with its players’ health in question. And for the second time in two days, the team found a way to survive and advance.
With the win over Saint Anselm came with undaunted performances from a Northwest team that seems to always be unshrinking in the biggest moments, particularly on the season’s biggest stages. In rising to the moment against Saint Anselm, the Bearcats clinched a spot in the NCAA Division II National Championship.
They’ve won 37 games in a row. They just need one more.
“5 a.m. workouts in preseason; this is what we worked for,” Bernard said. “We’ve got a chance to win the national championship. We’re going to be ready.”