Diego Bernard // Southwest Baptist

Freshman guard Diego Bernard dropped 11 points and handed out 5 assists in Northwests 84-61 win over Southwest Baptist Feb. 16 

Northwest men’s basketball cruised past Southwest Baptist University with a 84-61 win Feb. 16.

For No. 1 Northwest (25-0, 15-0 MIAA), the win came with deeper meaning than any other has this season. The triumph over Southwest Baptist (12-12, 6-9 MIAA) marked Northwest's 25th-consecutive win on the season, making this year’s start the best of coach Ben McCollum’s tenure.

For some teams, 25-0 may be cause for some large celebration or recognition of achievement. But the victory over Southwest Baptist ultimately carried no extra weight for Northwest’s players.

There were no Gatorade baths or dramatic celebrations after the 23-point victory; freshman guards Trevor Hudgins and Diego Bernard didn’t even know the perfect start was the longest of McCollum’s career until after the game. Northwest is used to it, and while the acheievment is remarkable, the Bearcats don’t plan on hanging their hats on regular season wins.

“You know, it’s a good accomplishment, especially for this team,” McCollum said. “We lost a lot from the previous season, and obviously there was quite a bit of doubt externally with this team, not doubt, but just accepting that we would fall off. This team played with a chip on their shoulder and wanted to make sure they didn’t fall off, and I thought they’ve done a great job of that.”

McCollum said that the feat would be something worth celebrating at the season’s end. In highlighting how effective his players have been this season, McCollum tried to provide perspective for how good Northwest has been for the last half-decade or so.

“I’m not sure that a lot of people understand the type of success that’s been going on for the last five, six seasons,” McCollum said. “The model of consistency that these kids and this program have shown is extremely impressive. It’s the kids that we recruit, how they were raised and their ability to stay consistent in an inconsistent society. I’m very proud, very proud of all of this team. It is very impressive what they’ve done.”

The 25th victory came in a fitting way for Northwest. After averaging a 40 percent clip from the field in their last two outings, the Bearcats found their collective shot against Southwest Bearcats, shooting 53.1 percent on the game.

After struggling slightly to start the game, Northwest rebounded. A three from Ryan Hawkins, who shot 2-of-21 in his last two contests, seemed to help Northwest find its offensive flow. Hawkins finished the game with a 5-of-10 shooting line, which included a 3-of-7 mark from three.

“He doesn’t let (poor shooting) affect his play,” McCollum said of Hawkins. “He doesn’t let it affect his defensive ability, his rebounding, his ability to get deflections, those sort of things. He doesn’t let it affect those aspects.”

After Hawkins’ three, Northwest’s offense seemed to get going and never looked back. Bernard made a number of crafty layups look easy, the team Hudgins hit two treys and the Bearcats took a 40-26 lead into the locker room at halftime.

“(Bernard) was under control,” McCollum said. “He drove with great pace…I thought he was fantastic. He was strong with the ball, he came to stops. Those types of things are what we need from him. I thought he drove to kick (out) a couple times, which was fantastic. We needed that spark, and he does that. He’ll just light a fire under the entire gym within seconds.”

In the aftermath of the victory, Hudgins compared Bernard to the NBA’s Russell Westbrook. Hudgins, Bernard and fellow freshman guard Xavier Rhodes logged more minutes together in the game than they have all season, mostly due to an illness limiting junior guard Kirk Finley.

In some ways, the freshman trio’s time on the court together gave insight into what the future of the program could be. But perhaps more importantly, it showcased how deep the Bearcats are now and led them through much of the second half of the victory.

“Man, it’s so fun,” Hudgins said of the trio playing together. “It reminds me of like back in AAU or something. Just running the floor, just passing, seeing (Bernard and Rhodes) with all their up and under layups. It’s just so much fun playing like that.”

The three freshman’s mark on the came was more than just cosmetic. Hudgins led the team with 20 points, while Bernard tallied 11 and dished out five assists. Rhodes scored six points and recorded five assists in just 18 minutes of action. They helped put the Southern Baptist Bearcats away.

In all, the game was a successful one for Northwest. The team found its shot after losing it in Lincoln, McCollum stretched his bench further and for more minutes than normal and the Bearcats walked away with a 23-point victory and the longest win streak to start a season in the McCollum era. Still, the Bearcats don’t plan on letting their foot off the gas.

“Yeah, it was the first time I guess,” Hudgins said on being 25-0. “I just learned that today. I’m happy. But we got a lot of work to do I think. (There’s) still a lot more games left in the season. I think we can grow a lot more and I think we’re going to keep on going.”

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