NW MBB

Northwest men's basketball junior guard Diego Bernard searches for a teammate to pass to during the second half of the Bearcats' 86-76 win over Truman State Nov. 23 in Bearcat Arena. Bernard finished with a career-high 25 points, 12 rebounds, four steals and two assists against the Bulldogs.

Roughly four hours prior to tipoff between Northwest men’s basketball and former MIAA foe Truman State, the second national rankings of the season were posted by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, a list that placed the Bearcats at third and the Bulldogs at second.

Truman entered Tuesday night’s contest riding an unblemished 4-0 start to the season, carrying momentum over from last year, when the Bulldogs accompanied Northwest at the Elite Eight in Evansville, Indiana.

Northwest entered the top-3 showdown two games removed from an 83-77 loss to Sioux Falls Nov. 13 for their first defeat of the season, one that bumped them down from the Bearcats’ previously owned No. 1 spot in the latest rankings.

“Coming in, we knew we were underdogs on paper,” Northwest junior guard Diego Bernard said following the matchup.

They didn’t play like it against Truman, though. The No. 3 ’Cats played like the winners of three of the last four Division II titles during their home debut, handing the Bulldogs their first loss of the season with an 86-76 win in Bearcat Arena.

“It’s business, I guess,” Northwest junior guard Trevor Hudgins said. “It’s just another game. … We competed. They competed. We came out with the dub.”

As much as it was just another game for the Bearcats (5-1) — another step toward defending their back-to-back titles, an early-season triumph that won’t matter much in March, a win that moved the program to an all-time record of 103-93 against Truman — it’ll serve as perhaps Bernard’s best game since arriving at Northwest in fall 2018. And he showed it from the jump.

The junior scored Northwest’s opening points of the game to take a 2-0 lead, and he wasn’t done there. Whether it was an assist, similar to the one that led to a layup to take a 9-7 lead with less than 16 minutes left in the first half, or being able to score, like he did to give the Bearcats a 13-7 advantage just a minute later, Bernard did it all.

He led the way with 25 points while going 9-for-15 (60%), but it wasn’t the new career-high scoring total that stuck out to the guard, or really anybody in the program. It wasn’t the season-high 12 rebounds that led to his eighth career double-double, either.

It was that, for the first time in at least a couple of weeks, Bernard was back to being his usual self — the player that Northwest coach Ben McCollum describes as having “his hair on fire” — adding four steals and a pair of assists in a season-high 37 minutes and 33 seconds of action.

“He was Diego again,” McCollum said. “I’ve challenged him a few times. I challenged him the other day in the (University of Missouri-St. Louis) game, probably as much as I ever have. The hardest part for people that have a lot of success, and especially a guy who’s a local hero around here — rightfully so; he should be — over time, if you’re not exactly who everybody wants you to be, it can add some pressure. I think kind of alleviating some of that pressure from himself to be perfect all the time and just be you, then he plays like this. He’s just him.”

“He was just fired up tonight, I guess,” Hudgins said through a laugh. “Maybe he was excited for Thanksgiving. Good eats. He’s a competitor, and as you can see, he’s a dog. He does it all.”

While Hudgins was reveling in his backcourt partner’s success, he wasn’t too concerned with the fact that he had just dropped 24 points and five assists on the second-best team in the country.

One of those assists was crucial toward Northwest clinging to a lead to start the second one, eventually paving the way for the win, and that’s what matters for the Manhattan, Kansas, native.

Truman, trailing 43-39 at the break, opened the second half with a 3-pointer from redshirt sophomore guard Elijah Hazekamp. Hudgins responded 36 seconds later, kicking the ball to sophomore forward Wes Dreamer on the backend of a pick-and-pop, a shot Dreamer drained to spark a 7-0 run for the Bearcats over the next three minutes.

That moment, as did the other four assists from Hudgins, was demonstrative of the Bearcats’ ability to pass the ball against the Bulldogs (4-1). The Bearcats, collectively, finished with a season-high 13 assists and season-low six turnovers.

“I thought we shared the ball,” McCollum said. “We played just completely egoless basketball. When you’ve had so much success, that can be difficult to do consistently, and especially against a team like that, because they’re really well coached.”

“When we’re not passing the ball, we do a lot of one-on-ones, trying to get offense that way,” Bernard said. “When we pass and drive and kick, we get easy buckets, and everybody doesn’t have to work as hard.”

Truman did find a lead at one point in the game, but it was a margin that seemingly vanished as quickly as it appeared, an advantage that grew as large as 3 points and lasted for as long as 2 minutes and 28 seconds before the latter half of a pair of free throws from Dreamer put Northwest back in front late in the first half.

And despite Northwest leading for more than 35 minutes of the game, the Bulldogs wouldn’t go away. They tried to mount a comeback until there wasn’t enough time to do so, and it was an attempt spearheaded by junior forward Cade McKnight, who tied Bernard for a game-high 25 points on 9-for-11 shooting inside the paint while grabbing seven rebounds.

That was OK with McCollum, who was trying to limit Truman from letting it fly from beyond the arc, a place the Bulldogs shot 47.8% prior to facing Northwest.

“That guy’s pretty good, too,” McCollum said of McKnight. “When you try to eliminate some of their shooting, sometimes you’re gonna give that up, and he finished every one of them.”

That’s in the past now, and McCollum won’t have to worry about McKnight again unless the two teams were to meet in the postseason. But for now, the 13th-year coach is pleased with the way his team started to handle itself on the offensive end of the court.

The Bearcats shot 48.3% from the field, including 40% from deep, both figures that were vastly improved from the first three games. They’re rates that have continued to climb following the loss to Sioux Falls, and that’s now led to three straight wins for Northwest.

“Offensively, I think this is the best game we’ve had all year,” Hudgins said. “It wasn’t even perfect, either. Just to see improvements from a couple weeks back, I’m really happy about that.”

“The last three games … we played OK, but we didn’t play up to our standards,” Bernard said. “Today, I felt like everybody kind of got a glimpse of what we could be, and we’ve just gotta take steps forward every day.”

Northwest will have two days between its latest ranked win and a matchup with Briar Cliff, an opponent the program hasn’t encountered since picking up two wins over the Chargers during the 1982 season.

In the meantime, the Bearcats will enjoy the latter half of their two-day break with Thanksgiving. And perhaps Hudgins was right — maybe one of the best performances of Bernard’s career was fueled by the fact that he was “fired up” to indulge on Thursday. Because in the aftermath of the 10-point win, before packing his things and leaving a room full of reporters, there was one last thing on his mind.

“It’s the ham or my mom’s green beans,” Bernard said was his favorite Thanksgiving dish. “My mom’s green beans — I can’t wait to eat them. … Oh, and that cornbread. That cornbread, whew.”

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