Xavier Rhodes

Freshman guard Xavier Rhodes celebrates a three on the bench in Northwest's 87-53 win over Lindenwood Dec. 8 at Bearcat Arena. Rhodes logged 20 minutes and scored six points in the contest. 

Northwest men’s basketball cruised to its second conference win over Lindenwood 87-53 at Bearcat Arena Dec. 8. For the second time in three days, the Bearcats (10-0) shot the lights out en route to a win over a talented MIAA opponent.

After an inconsistent showing against Lincoln Dec. 6, Northwest dominated Lindenwood (7-5) in every facet of the game. The Bearcats shot just over 55 percent from the field and never trailed the Lions by more than two points.

In a way, the game served as a proverbial righting of the ship for Northwest. After an uneven 85-78 victory over Lincoln, McCollum expressed discontent and forecasted a tougher matchup with the Lions ahead. With just a day off between games, the Bearcats play improved dramatically.

“We watched, I think I had 38 clips (of film),” coach Ben McCollum said. “So we had a bunch of clips that we watched. A lot of it was just our mistakes, we just didn’t play hard (against Lincoln). That’s all we did, we just played harder. Basketball’s so simple. It all comes back to, ‘Do you compete and do you execute?’ And tonight we competed and executed on both ends.”

The opening weekend of MIAA play for Northwest was a good one by McCollum’s assessment. The Bearcats didn’t play their best game against Lincoln but head into next week with a pair of conference victories.

“Well, today was good. And Thursday was good, because we go to learn,” McCollum said. “We got to learn with a win. We had that game (against Lincoln) at home, and we were lucky we hit enough shots to win the game, and so that was somebody’s chance to beat us and we were able to weather that storm. Hopefully, again, we can continue to get better.”

Against Lincoln, the Bearcats were never able to establish a rhythm and failed to put the Blue Tigers away. Against Lindenwood, the script changed.

Northwest established itself early, entering the halftime with a 13 point lead, in part thanks to a Joey Witthus buzzer-beating three.

“Yeah, that was awesome,” Witthus, a senior swingman, said of the shot. “That was fun. That gave us a lot of momentum going into the second half.”

Witthus finished the game as Northwest’s leading scorer with 19 points. Sophomore Ryan Hawkins added 14 points and 12 rebounds while freshman guard Diego Bernard supplied 13 points off the bench for the second-straight contest.

The energy in Bearcat Arena was as noticeable as it’s been all year, a point of emphasis for Northwest so far this season. Bernard has been a walking spark plug off the bench, bringing life to the floor each time he checks in.

The Bearcats started the game flat against Lincoln, something they were determined to fix heading into the matchup with the Lions.

“We came out more prepared,” Witthus said. “In warmups, we really tried to focus on getting each other going, getting ready for the game, so those first couple minutes of the game are not our warmup, but our warmup is our warmup if that makes sense. So we’re ready to go right as tip-off hits.”

Every active player on Northwest’s roster logged at least a few minutes in the contest, shedding light on McCollum’s increased focus on developing depth this season. True freshman guard Xavier Rhodes logged 20 minutes in the contest, adding six points that all seemed to be highlight-reel-worthy.

Bernard and starting guard Trevor Hudgins each got into some foul trouble early in the contest, paving the way for increased minutes for Rhodes and junior guard Kirk Finley. With Bernard and Hudgins out, Rhodes shined.

“It’s just a tough situation to be in when you don’t have a ball-handler,” McCollum said of Rhodes’ performance. “So then you bring in a true freshman that looks like he’s five (years old). He doesn’t play like it, I’ll tell you that much right now, he’s just got a baby face. He does phenomenal.”

Rhodes’ presence in the game and his coach’s comments afterward highlighted the enjoyment and levity the team brings to each game. The win over Lindenwood was defined by captivating plays and amusing bench celebrations, some of which were led by Rhodes while others were a product of his on-court performance.

In essence, Northwest is a team that brings intensity and passion to the court each game, but with it, a lighthearted presence. It’s a formula that has won the team five-consecutive MIAA regular season titles, and it’s a formula that carried Northwest over Lindenwood Saturday night.

“The way we run our program is, we have a lot of fun,” McCollum said. “Sometimes, when you have a lot of fun, there has to be also an understanding that there’s some details that go with it. I’m able to goof around and then 10 seconds later focus. I’ve got to know which guys can do that and which guys can’t. I think I’m getting better at it.”

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