Northwest men’s basketball breezed past Minnesota State-Mankato after dominating the Mavericks 91-62 in the first round of the NCAA Division II Central Region tournament at Bearcat Arena March 16.
The win brought the Bearcats (33-0) to the second round of the tournament, one step closer to a trip to Evansville, Indiana, for an appearance in the Elite Eight.
The triumph over the Mavericks represented the 33rd consecutive victory for Northwest, with its last loss coming a year ago in the first round of the Central Region tournament at the hands of Mankato. A year and six days later, the script flipped.
Northwest shot the lights out, shooting 55.6 percent from the field en route to a 29-point victory over the Mavericks. The Bearcats didn’t trail for a single second in the contest.
Coach Ben McCollum said the prospect of facing Mankato in a tournament rematch provided some extra motivation for the Bearcats, though they didn’t view the contest as an opportunity for revenge.
“(Mankato) was our last loss, so that certainly helps, that factors in (to motivation),” coach Ben McCollum said. “A part of it is, is just, it’s not necessarily the team (Mankato) per se, it’s more just that first round… The concern of the Mankato thing, just because we’ve played them so often, kind of gets built up.”
With last year’s loss coupled with 2017’s close win over Upper Iowa, the first round has historically been a rough one for the Bearcats. This season, the team left little doubt.
McCollum attributed Northwest’s robust first-round performance to preparation. The Bearcats used a close 70-68 victory over Missouri Western Feb. 26 as a warmup for the tournament. In the week of practice leading up to the matchup with Mankato, the team blared heavy-metal music on three speakers to ready for the environment.
“We were just prepared,” McCollum said. “I can’t even say enough about our kids and their preparation. (We had) just great preparation, great focus, stayed with it. We fought.”
The Bearcats were led offensively by senior swingman Joey Witthus, who transferred to Northwest from Mankato following the 2017-18 season. Playing against his former team for just the second time in his career, and for the first time since the tournament loss, the senior went off for a career-high 39 points.
“I thought Joey was really good,” McCollum said. “He had a great week of practice so it didn’t shock me. He’s had a great season, and he wants it to continue. I thought he played with a want to win. There’s a big difference between wanting to win and playing not to lose. Our kids played to win tonight.”
Witthus shot 12-of-21 from the field and drained all 11 of his tries from the free throw line en route to his career-high point total. The Minnesota native added 7 rebounds to his impressive stat sheet and checked out of the game late in the second half to deafening applause.
In the aftermath of the win, Witthus acknowledged his departure from Mankato, but said his attention remains on where he is now.
“Like my mom told me this week, I’m a Bearcat now,” Witthus said. “And I have been for two years. Nothing against Mankato, they’re a great program and everything, but I’m a Bearcat now and that’s what I’m focused on. This was a first-round game and we’re moving on to the next one.”
In some ways, the matchup had everything that has come to define Northwest over the course of this season, and more specifically, over the last few weeks.
The Bearcats played in front of a sold out crowd. Freshman guards Trevor Hudgins and Diego Bernard combined for 36 points in their first taste of NCAA tournament action. The Bearcats shot well from three (47.8 percent) and were nearly perfect from the line (20-of-21).
A particularly animated McCollum pumped his arms to energize the crowd more than once, Ryan Hawkins didn’t miss a shot and, of course, the Bearcats cruised their way to their 33rd straight win.
Now, the Bearcats are set to trek forward in what McCollum referred to as “the toughest region in the county,” just four wins away from their second NCAA Divison II National Championship appearance in two years.
“It was kind of a monkey on the back getting off,” Hudgins, who dropped 16 points, said. “No fear. We were playing to win like coach said. We just attacked it, attacked this game. It’s win-or-go-home. We wanted to win.”