Less than three minutes into the second half of Northwest men’s basketball’s 60-52 Nov. 8 win over Minnesota-Crookston, sophomore guard Trevor Hudgins forced a turnover from the hands of Crookston forward Chase Johnson.
The play came after a first half in which Northwest led for 19 seconds and trailed for 16 minutes. It came after the Bearcats exited the locker room at halftime trailing 26-25. It came after they scored five quick points after the break to take the lead.
And what came after Hudgins’ steal was a pass ahead to sophomore guard Diego Bernard on the fast break, one that gave Bernard possession with a wide-open lane that served more as a launchpad. The St. Joseph native took the ball in stride, lifted off from near the free-throw line and viscously dunked the ball to take a 32-26 lead over Crookston, forcing the Golden Eagles to take a timeout.
“It was good,” Bernard said. “We wasn’t hitting shots like we normally hit ‘em. It just gave us a boost.”
The moment less defined the game than it did provide an accent mark, a moment of excitement in a contest marred by a lack of it for Northwest. It paved the way for a victory that, in the first half, seemed fleeting. It provided the spark that Bernard’s athleticism tends to.
It helped Northwest (3-0) secure its third victory at the St. Joseph Civic Arena this season and its first at the Hillyard Tipoff Hall of Fame Classic.
“It just shows that we’re mentally tough, just to pull out a dub like this,” Hudgins said. “That’s a good team. And we’re known for our offense, but we take pride on defense. If we’re not shooting the ball well, then we’re definitely going to get after it on defense.”
Northwest, of course, didn’t shoot the ball well. The offense was abysmal for much of the contest, shooting 30.4% from the field in the first half and 1-of-10 from three. The Bearcats finished the game with a 40% mark from the field and an 11.8% clip from beyond the arc.
The rough performance from three followed the Bearcats into the locker room at halftime and back onto the court in the second half, but their overall offensive woes didn’t. They grabbed a lead over Crookston 14 seconds into the second half and did not trail for the rest of the game.
Northwest coach Ben McCollum said his halftime message to the team was simple, one that helped the team to 38 victories and a national championship a season ago and one that helped the Bearcats to a gritty win over Crookston in St. Joseph.
“‘Just keep fighting,’” McCollum said in regards to his halftime message. “You have to be able to win those games when you’re not playing well. That’s just part of being tough, is, ‘Hey, you’re not at your best. You don’t feel your best. This, that; you ain’t making your shots, you’re not getting the usual rhythm. It’s just not happening for you today. Now go win.”
“And that’s what our kids did,” he added. “And that’s why they’re champions and that’s why I’m fortunate to be able to coach them. They still believed and still competed and it was awesome.”
The Bearcats, who continued to lean on six core players in the wake of a season-ending injury to senior guard Kirk Finley, made just 2 threes in the contest on 17 tries.
Senior forward Ryan Welty, Division II’s active three-point percentage leader, didn’t make a single shot. Freshman forward Wes Dreamer, the newly-minted sixth man, missed his only three-point try. Junior forward Ryan Hawkins, who drained eight three-pointers and dropped a program-record 44-points Nov. 2 against Southern Nazarene, went 0-for-6 from downtown. Bernard, the energized guard with an affinity for pulling-up off the dribble, didn’t hit one either.
In a close matchup with Crookston, four of Northwest’s five best shooters combined to go 0-of-13 from beyond the arc.
“These are tougher games to win, just ‘cause you’re so frustrated with how bad you’re playing,” McCollum said. “I mean, we just didn’t play well. And (Crookston) had a lot to do with it. It wasn’t just us; it was them — they did it. And again, yeah, we’ve just got to be better.”
The only Bearcat to make a shot from downtown against Crookston was Hudgins, the Manhattan, Kansas, native who helped carry Northwest to a victory on its worst offensive night of the season. The guard scored 28 points and tallied three boards and two assists in the 8-point victory.
McCollum seemed most impressed with Hudgins’ defensive performance, which saw him matchup with Crookston guard Harrison Cleary, who Hudgins held to 18 points. He helped lead Northwest’s defensive effort, one that held the Golden Eagles to a 33.3% mark from the field and a 7-of-26 mark from three.
In some ways, Hudgins, the reigning MIAA Freshman of the Year, willed Northwest to victory on both sides of the ball.
“He was awesome,” McCollum said. “Yeah, I mean, we had to play through him quite a bit and he was on. He was playing like himself again and, you know, we need more of that. And we’re gonna need other guys to continue to be good throughout the weekend.”
Hudgins, of course, credited his teammates in the aftermath of his 28-point performance. He said he was the benefactor of an unselfish team and that every single Bearcat “can get a bucket.”
He was predictably humble and gave more attention to Bernard’s athleticism than his own lethal performance. Hudgins and McCollum both looked forward to Nov. 9, when the team is set to take on MSU Moorhead in the second leg of Northwest’s walk through the Hillyard Tipoff. McCollum vowed to be better.
The game could be the team’s 42nd win in a row, which would tie a 90-year old program and conference record. In the aftermath of Northwest’s win over Crookston, Hudgins explained to a reporter why the Bearcats yell and scream throughout warmups, often drowning out the speaker systems of arenas like the one in St. Joseph. It’s something they did all last season and something they’ll do again tomorrow.
“We want to win the game before the game even starts,” Hudgins said.