EVANSVILLE, Ind. — As confetti rained onto the hardwood at the Ford Center, the Northwest men’s basketball team found itself in the middle of it.
In the middle of the court, a group of 11 players, numerous coaches, assistants and administrators raved to the tune of “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang playing over the arena’s loudspeakers — though the song was mostly drowned out by loyal fans cheering, “B-E-A-R-C-A-T-S,” congratulating their newly minted heroes.
In the middle of the commencement, they laughed and danced and hugged one another. Some even cried. They clutched the NCAA Division II National Championship trophy and took turns kissing it.
In the middle of the emotions, coach Ben McCollum took time to hug every single player on the court. He hugged his coaching staff, his student managers and, of course, his wife and kids.
And in the middle of it all, the Bearcats were anything but that. They moved past Point Loma by a score of 64-58 in the national title game. The thinning of the pack was complete. At the conclusion of the NCAA Division II Tournament, the Bearcats were indeed the center of attention, but they were nowhere near the middle. They were on top.
“I’m speechless,” freshman guard Trevor Hudgins said. “Honestly, our team is just family to me. We love each other. We play for each other. We trust the process. We listen to Mac. We just buy in.”
The win was the 38th in a row for Northwest, completing its flawless season. It came in a familiar fashion. The Bearcats shot well from three, hitting 44.4 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc, and they played excellent defensively.
Northwest held Point Loma, a team that averaged 80.1 points per game heading into the title matchup, to just 58 points. The Bearcats allowed the Sea Lions to make only three shots from downtown.
In the end, Northwest walked away with its second national title in three years, though this one feels different. The Bearcats graduated the winningest class in program history last spring, one that included three-time MIAA Player of the Year Justin Pitts. They were expected to take a step back. Instead, they stepped forward.
“Who does that?” McCollum asked in the aftermath of the win. “Who goes … 38-0, won a national title starting two freshmen and a sophomore? We probably got destroyed our first scrimmage. (We) lost four starters from a team that probably could have won a national title. … This is the result of what everybody in the past has done and what our kids have done this season, carrying on that culture.”
McCollum raved about his freshman guards, Hudgins and Diego Bernard, as the two sat next to their coach, wearing their championship hats backward with pieces of the net they’d just cut down tied to the straps.
Bernard, who starred on the hardwood for St. Joseph-Lafayette high school just a year ago, was particularly emotional after the game as he embraced with his family.
“It was a good feeling,” Bernard said, “knowing that all the traveling my parents do — all the money and stuff that they have to spend — finally paid off. We got the national championship.”
Bernard scored 14 points in the title game, his second-highest point total of the tournament. Hudgins dropped 12 points, while senior swingman Joey Witthus led the way for Northwest with 24. While fighting through a hip injury that limited his playing time in each of the previous two games, Witthus logged 40 minutes.
“Joey Buckets,” McCollum said. “That’s what he does: gets buckets.”
Along with a superb offensive performance, Witthus offered one of the night’s brightest highlights. With a little less than 7 minutes left in the contest, the swingman hit a deep, off-balance three, one that gave the Bearcats a 10-point lead in the late-going.
“I think we went into a timeout almost right after that (shot),” Witthus said. “I think everyone started to kind of feel like, ‘Alright, we got some momentum. Let’s get a couple stops. This is our moment…’ Sometimes you just get lucky.”
The shot itself may have come with a certain degree of luck, but it feels as though this unlikely season and tournament victory did not. Rather, Northwest’s championship seems to be the product of intentional design.
McCollum recruited Bernard as hard as any player he has in his career. He took Witthus on as a transfer after the 2017 season, hoping to win another national title. The hope was mutual. It worked out.
Junior forward Ryan Welty, the only Bearcat on the roster to play in the 2017 title game, chose Northwest over Division I offers. Sophomore forward Ryan Hawkins committed to Northwest on the ride home from his first visit to the campus. Hudgins, the redshirt out of Manhattan, Kansas, came to the program because he wanted to win. They all did, really. And they all won.
“(The winning) kind of played a factor, just a little bit,” Hudgins said jokingly in regards to his 2017 recruitment to the program. “Just watching them play in the championship game two years ago was just amazing. … Coming here … I just bought in. And here it is.”
In the aftermath of his second national championship win, McCollum said the thing he’d remember most about this team is their consistency and passion, among other things. It’s what delivered the Bearcats here.
At the close of the season’s last game, they remain unbeaten — though McCollum doesn’t see this as any sort of ending point.
“For me and the way we run our program, it wasn’t a ‘last game,’” McCollum said. “The way we try to run it is that the culture kind of continues itself, and it’s just going to continue to build on itself. … It’s going to continue. This isn’t our last game. We’re going to continue our culture and continue to compete.”
Northwest’s touted culture helped lead them to Evansville, where they cut down nets. The team will soon be fitted for rings for what it accomplished here. The campaign that started with a poorly-played scrimmage and a season-opening overtime victory that the Bearcats nearly lost resulted in a national title.
A year ago, the Bearcats lost their last game of the season, falling in the first round to Minnesota State-Mankato. Back then, the future of the team was unclear. Graduating that senior class was supposed to set Northwest back. It didn’t.
Against all odds, the Bearcats are national champions with a young core and a bright future. They were supposed to be a work in progress, a reloading team. This was supposed to be a building year. But they weren’t and it wasn’t.
Instead, they’re champions. Again.
“I kind of like showing up to family Thanksgiving with a watch and two rings, so we’ll see,” Hawkins said. “I’m running out of fingers.”