Northwest men’s basketball earned a hard-fought 79-59 win over Emporia State at Bearcat Arena Jan. 9, defeating the Hornets in a game that was closer than the score suggests.
Northwest (15-0, 5-0 MIAA) enjoyed a solid first half, entering the break with a 37-23 lead over Emporia (6-7, 1-3 MIAA). The Bearcats played with as much energy as they have all season, in part due to the placement of freshman guard Diego Bernard into the starting lineup.
“I think he brings a level of energy,” coach Ben McCollum said of Bernard. “I thought by starting Diego, who was going to play probably 30 minutes, then Kirk (Finley) could come in and get a rhythm and play for an extended period. I think it’s been helping us.”
Bernard, who finished the first half with nine points, has embraced his role as a walking spark plug for the Bearcats. Beginning the season as the sixth man for Northwest, Bernard has played his way into the starting lineup, acting as a proverbial shot of adrenaline each time he enters the game.
“It’s really the same,” Bernard said of his increased role. “I’m the energy guy; I bring a lot of energy on defense. That’s my job. Whether I’m coming off the bench or starting, that just what I’m going to do.”
At the onset of the second half, Northwest’s offense began to stall while its defensive rebounding fell by the wayside. The Bearcats’ lead shrunk from 14 to 6 points with nine minutes left to play in the game.
Enter Joey Witthus.
The senior swingman scored 14 consecutive points for the Bearcats, lifting the team toward a cushioned point margin while providing Bearcat Arena with its most captivating moments of the evening.
“You can’t guard him,” Bernard said of Witthus in the aftermath of the senior’s 32-point performance.
McCollum described Witthus’ performance as somewhat of a saving grace for a Northwest team that was failing to convert shots. McCollum used Witthus’ apparent nickname, Joey Buckets, after the senior’s clutch second half.
“Eventually, Joey Buckets got going and we were fortunate enough to come out with the win,” McCollum said. “I just like our team scoring, it doesn’t matter who does it. He could have 100 for all I care. He stepped up big.”
Following one of the best performances of his career, Witthus talked more about the team than his own play. While speaking of the Northwest’s inherent unselfishness, Witthus highlighted the program’s altruistic spirit.
“As a senior, whether it’s scoring or rebounding or getting a stop on defense, I try to be a leader out there in any way I can aside from just scoring the ball,” Witthus said. “I’m always looking for my teammates because I have trust in them to knock it down and they will knock it down. With all the threats we have on offense, we’re all confident in each other.”
Some might expect a team with three freshman guards in Bernard, Trevor Hudgins and Xavier Rhodes, to show a lack of maturity when the lights shine the brightest. Bernard and Rhodes are each less than a year removed from being the best player on their respective high school teams, while Hudgins, who redshirted last season, played a similar role two years ago.
Instead, the freshmen and the team as a whole tend to seek the hottest hand when Northwest needs a shot to fall.
“It doesn’t matter if someone’s scoring 20 or if someone doesn’t have a point,” Bernard said. “We’re all a team player. We play as a family. Whoever’s hot, we just give them the ball.”
The selfless attitude displayed on the court is a reflection of the culture established within the program. Over the last half-decade or so, the team has been defined by an unselfish style of play that has resulted in historic success.
“I’m a big believer in-- I’m about to spit some knowledge here-- in finding people’s greatest strengths and then getting them to play towards just those strengths,” McCollum said. “When you tell kids, and kids want to know just like adults want to know, ‘What can I do? What can I be great at?’ Do it all the time, and if you don’t do it, I’m going to scream and yell at you. I think that’s what creates a lot of unselfishness. Guys know who they are and what their strengths are and they play towards those strengths constantly.”
McCollum highlighted the fact that Northwest seeks unselfishness when in the recruiting phase. In short, Northwest recruits selfless players to play selfless basketball.
“We’ve got 11 guys, I’ve used six or seven scholarships, I’ve got 10 that I can use,” McCollum said. “We like specific people that can handle it. This program is not, is not for everybody. It’s not. It’s a tough program to be in because you’ve got to give and give and give.”
In all, the Bearcats battled selflessly through a too-close-for-comfort second half against Emporia and excited Bearcat Arena with a win, and perhaps more importantly, a better understanding of themselves.
Northwest did not shoot as well as it could have, hitting 44 percent of its shots. The team allowed Emporia State to hang around longer than wanted and gave up second-chance points more often than it should have.
Still, the Bearcats made shots when they needed to the most, or more accurately, found the player who could when they needed to the most, and extended their winning streak to 15 games in the process.
Northwest will look to extend its streak to 16 Jan. 12 against Washburn.
“Where we’re at in regards to a result, from an external standpoint, has probably exceeded a lot of expectations,” McCollum said. “I guess I don’t view it necessarily as that, it’s more, ‘Are we improving? Are we competing?’ ...I thought we played fantastic tonight, and now we’re going to play fantastic again on Saturday.”