Northwest men’s basketball willed its way to a 70-68 victory over Missouri Western Feb. 26, clawing through 40 minutes of action en route to another win.
The Bearcats (28-0, 18-0 MIAA) entered the contest 40 minutes away from cutting down the nets in celebration of their sixth-straight conference and two victories away from a perfect season.
On the surface, Western (12-17, 6-12 MIAA) didn’t seem to pose a viable threat to Northwest’s perfect record, nor did the Griffons seem likely to play spoiler ahead of the Bearcats’ imminent postgame festivities.
Instead, the Griffons gave the Bearcats fits, holding Northwest to a 44.2 field goal percentage and a 23.3 three-point percentage. The two-point victory was the closest for the Bearcats since their first game of the season.
Still, the Bearcats were able to adjust and eke out their 28th consecutive victory in front of a crowd of more than 2,100 people.
“It felt like a regional game with the atmosphere,” senior swingman Joey Witthus said. “Just to be able to battle through it, and you know we didn’t play very well, but we came out with a win and that’s what’s important.”
Witthus scored 29 points in the tightly-contested contest, a mark that led the team. Freshman Diego Bernard added 18 points and a career-high 12 rebounds, good for his first career double-double. The performance that helped Northwest seal the rivalry game win.
For the Bearcats, the win over Western meant no more than any win before, rather, it was used as preparation for what lies ahead. With the MIAA in hand, the Bearcats are positioned to host the central region in the NCAA Division II tournament.
“Our objective going into the game was to treat this like it’s an NCAA tournament game because I’ve always felt like we don’t play well in that first game,” coach Ben McCollum said. “This was a big environment.”
The matchup with Western offered as much pressure in the later moments as Northwest has felt all season. After building a 16 point lead in the latter part of the second half, the Bearcats let Western turn the tide. Western pulled within one point of Northwest in the game’s final minutes.
With the team’s perfect record and a rivalry game on the line, the young Bearcats did not crumble in stress. Instead, the Bearcats calmy hit shots when they needed to, willing their way to a win.
“Like I said, this felt like a regional game,” Witthus said. “For everyone to be able to just play in that experience was really important for us. Just battling through controversy and being able to get a win: that helped us grow.”
The Bearcats hope the tightly-contested contest in an intense atmosphere will pay off as they march their way toward postseason play.
“Hopefully, in a couple weeks, we’re going to thank Missouri Western for this game,” McCollum said. “And I thought that going into the game, like, a close game wouldn’t be a bad thing. When you’re in the game, it’s horrible, but afterward… I think it’s going to pay a lot of dividends.”
McCollum thinks the game, in some ways, could serve as a sobering moment for a team that has cruised its way through most of its 28 victories.
“This game was perfect for the postseason,” McCollum said. “This is exactly what we needed. I needed it as a coach, we needed it as a team … I thought we didn’t do a great job of handling it, I didn’t do a great job of handling it, but we did better than we ever have.”
For 40 minutes, Northwest ground its way through the close matchup in route to a victory, one that could be an important step in the Bearcats’ impending postseason run. Afterward, the team cut down the nets in celebration of its conference title, something McCollum says never gets old.
Next, the Bearcats will move on to Topeka, Kansas, to defend their perfect regular season against Washburn.
The Bearcats want to win the matchup as much as they expect to, and they plan on continuing their winning ways through the MIAA tournament and into regionals. Finding ways to win and advance is what they do, and it’s what they’ve done at a higher clip than any other program in the country over the last three seasons.
“Just one game at a time: that’s our motto,” Bernard said. “I chose Northwest because they’re a winning program, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”