With just a 6-point cushion and less than two minutes left on the game clock, Northwest men’s basketball needed a lift in the final moments of its NCAA Division II Central Region semifinal matchup with Southern Nazarene.
The No. 1 Bearcats were truly toeing the line of elimination for the first time in the NCAA tournament, and the Crimson Storm was doing their best to play spoiler to the Bearcats’ dream season.
With almost no time left on the shot clock due to a previously missed opportunity, and standing closer to half court than the three-point line, freshman guard Trevor Hudgins, who hadn’t made a single trey in the contest, threw up a contested, off-balance prayer.
As the shot flew through the air towards the basket, the game’s momentum, and in some ways, Northwest’s entire season hung in the balance.
The shot, of course, went in, the crowd cheered as loud as it did all night, and the Bearcats took a 9-point lead they would build further on, ultimately beating Southern Nazarene 70-59 to move on to the Central Region championship.
“That’s what college basketball’s about,” coach Ben McCollum said in the aftermath of Northwest’s latest win. “I thought (Southern Nazarene) competed at a high level, I thought that was one of our toughest games of the season up to this point. We just battled through that and fought through it, and that’s why these games are fun.”
The game was one of the most tightly contested matchups Northwest (34-0) has played in all season. The Bearcats’ largest lead of the night was just 13 points, coming midway through the second half.
Southern Nazarene (29-6), fighting to keep its season alive, forced Northwest to hit tough shots. The Bearcats responded — though they did so grudgingly. The Bearcats shot just 5-of-14 from beyond the arc in the first half, part of which can be chalked up to a certain degree of hesitance.
They fared even worse from three in the second half, shooting just 20 percent from downtown.
“A part of it is, we need to step up and you need to shoot the ball,” McCollum said. “At some point, you just kind of got to stop trying to not miss it. We’ve got to get up (and) shoot the ball… Step up, shoot it and it’ll go in.”
Hudgins, who was passed up a number of open looks throughout the contest, hit his shots when it mattered most and finished the contest with 16 points. Senior swingman Joey Witthus, who dropped 39 points in Northwest’s first-round win over Mankato, led Northwest with 29 points and, outside of Hudgins, offered the night’s most clutch moments.
Witthus finished the game with a 3-of-6 line from three, though each of his treys seemed to come when Northwest needed them most. 14 of the swingman’s points came in the second half and five of his first-half points came in consecutive fashion, helping the Bearcats carry a 36-28 lead into the break.
“It’s just big to have the guys that we have,” McCollum said. “Joey obviously made some huge plays down the stretch, and it was really all we had at that point. We just couldn’t get anything going offensively … There was no rhythm, no flow. And that’s what (Nazarene) wanted, was a low-rhythm, low-flow game. They wanted a fist fight.
In some ways, a fist fight is what Southern Nazarene got. The Bearcats weren’t terrible offensively, but they shot just 29.2 percent from three and 46.9 percent from the field. Two of Northwest’s most sure-fire shooters, junior forward Ryan Welty and sophomore forward Ryan Hawkins, combined to shoot 2-of-8 from the field.
The St. Patrick’s Day win came, somewhat ironically, with a certain degree of luck. The unpredictability and win-or-go-home format of the NCAA tournament doesn’t leave much leeway for off nights. The Bearcats know they escaped elimination despite a suboptimal performance.
“A part of tournament settings is a little bit of luck,” McCollum said. “What if Trevor doesn’t hit those two threes? What if he doesn’t sling that one in from halfcourt darn-near? There’s a part of luck that goes with a tournament setting that makes it really difficult to win tournaments.”
With the win and clutch performances arose an unlikely hero of sorts in the form of junior forward Tyler Dougherty. Dougherty, who averages just 10 minutes per game this season, was forced into playing time with Hawkins in foul trouble. The Bearcat provided a spark off the bench not measured by the stat sheet.
“(I prepare) just knowing anything can happen in a game,” Dougherty said. “Just staying ready, having a mindset. I get the opportunity to watch what’s going on in a game before I go in there, (so I) just take everything that I’m seeing out there and kind of put that in as a mental note.”
The junior forward scored three points and grabbed one steal in his four minutes of action, though his presence in the game seemed to directly coincide with a change in momentum. When on the floor, he was tasked with guarding the Storm’s 6-foot-11-inch senior center Noah Starkey.
“He was amazing,” Witthus said of Dougherty. “He brought in a lot of energy. Especially coming in to guard that big guy (Starkey) and get some steals, and get a couple of layups for us. Just to bring that energy off the bench and to step up in that moment, (he was) just truly a spark that we needed.”
With clutch performances, an unrelenting home crowd and a slight dose of luck in hand, the Bearcats managed to sneak past Southern Nazarene en route to a semifinal win. In doing so, they’ve booked a trip the Central Regional championships where they’ll face conference rival Missouri Southern for a chance at the Elite Eight.
Northwest will square off with the Lions at 7 p.m. March 19 for in its last game at Bearcat Arena. The team hasn’t lost at home — or lost, period — in more than a calendar year, and it hopes to continue that trend.
“If we fight hard enough, if we compete enough, we’ve got enough kids with enough heart, that they don’t want to let us lose,” McCollum said. “You saw that tonight.”