Northwest men’s basketball trailed Missouri Southern by seven points nearly 10 minutes into the NCAA Central Region Championship at Bearcat Arena March 19, and the Bearcats were in desperate need for a spark.
Sophomore forward Ryan Hawkins, to that point, had carried the Bearcats on his back, scoring all 11 of the team’s 11 points. On the biggest stage of the season thus far, Hawkins had already stepped up.
With Northwest trailing 18-11, and Hawkins’ team leaning on him heavily, the sophomore leaped further.
Hawkins grabbed an offensive rebound after a missed three by freshman guard Trevor Hudgins and converted a layup for his and the Bearcats’ 13th point of the game. The play, at the time, seemed inconsequential, but the sequence helped ignite Northwest’s offense, leading to an 82-70 win for the Bearcats over Southern.
“I thought the thing that really set (us) off was, there was a big offensive rebound,” coach Ben McCollum said in reference to the play. “I thought that kind of got us going a little bit. After that, we just defended our butts off. Just an absolutely fantastic effort by our kids.”
The win clinched the Central Region Championship for Northwest and secured the team a spot in the Elite Eight for the second time in three years. Hawkins finished the game with 28 points, the highest output of his career.
“(Hawkins) just found himself opened, and he stepped up and knocked it down,” McCollum said. “There was no better time for him to have one of those games that he had tonight. He was absolutely fantastic.”
Throughout Northwest’s first two games of the NCAA tournament, the team was led by senior swingman Joey Witthus and freshman guard Trevor Hudgins. Against Southern, the narrative changed.
Witthus and Hudgins were both silenced by Southern’s defense for much of the first half. In their place, Hawkins and junior forward Ryan Welty shined. Both Hawkins of Welty, of course, chalked up their solid performances to their teammates.
“I think our guards were doing a good job of getting paint,” Hawkins said. “(I was) just relocating for those easy layups, so, credit to them. Just playing with energy.”
Welty finished the game with 12 points, shooting 3-of-4 from three. Hudgins added 20 points, 12 of which came via the free-throw line.
After Hawkins’ provided a spark, the Bearcats took off and never looked back. They entered halftime with a 33-24 lead and built from there. In doing so, the Bearcats clinched a trip to Evansville, Indiana, moving one step closer to a national title.
In the Bearcats’ last trip the Elite Eight in 2017, they walked away with a championship. The core of that team, of course, graduated last spring. Perhaps the most impressive facet of Northwest’s latest run through the Central Region is how unlikely it seems in retrospect.
After the team’s first scrimmage in October, McCollum was worried about the grueling season ahead.
“I got done (with the scrimmage) and said, ‘Man, this is going to be a long year,’” McCollum said. “I called my wife, and I think I even said, ‘Man, this could be a long year, honey, if I don’t figure something out.’”
McCollum and his staff poured over hours of film, trying to figure out what the team could do well. By the time Northwest’s third scrimmage ended, McCollum knew the Bearcats were on the verge of something special.
“You lose the guys that we lost … I think that people supported us at the beginning of the year,” McCollum said. “They wanted us to do well always. But I think there was an acceptance that we were just not going to be as good. I think our guys have used that the whole season as kind of a chip on their shoulder.”
Two seasons after winning it all and armed with an almost entirely different roster, the Bearcats are hoping to do it again. Welty, the only player on the team who appeared in the 2017 National Title game, is tired of talking about two seasons ago.
He wants this incarnation of the Bearcats to win their own title. After the victory over Southern, Northwest is knocking on the door — just three wins away from cutting down nets in Evansville.
“Honestly, I don’t really want to talk about that. We’re a completely different team,” Welty said. “It’s awesome to be back at this point. Like I said, I hope we can keep this going.”