Northwest men’s basketball earned a hard-fought 85-78 win over Lincoln University in its first MIAA matchup of the season at Bearcat Arena Dec. 6.
The Bearcats (9-0) got off to a slow start in the contest and played a back-and-forth game with Lincoln (4-3) for much of the first half. While Northwest’s performance was statistically sound, its offense lacked rhythm and was relatively quiet in the early going of the Silent Night-themed contest.
The crowd was instructed to remain mute until Northwest scored its 10th point. WIth a shot that foreshadowed his performance for the remainder of the game, freshman guard Diego Bernard drained a three with just over 12 minutes left in the first half for Northwest’s 10th point, unleashing a surge of sound through Bearcat Arena.
“I’m the hype man off the bench,” Bernard said. “I just play my role. Everybody does their thing, my job is to come in and give energy, play defense and just shoot when I’m open.”
The moment, which was a highlight for the Bearcats in a game that carried with it mixed results, served as a source of energy in the midst of a slow start. The Bearcats were flat out of the gate, trailing Lincoln for just over eight minutes in the first half.
“When you go into a game and you just want to be handed a win, that’s not exactly how it works,” coach Ben McCollum said. “You have to go and take wins in this league. We just played so passive, hoping that we would win, rather than attacking and putting everything on the line and trying to go impose our will.”
Sophomore forward Ryan Welty drained a three at the halftime buzzer to give Northwest a 40-37 lead over the Blue Tigers, one the Bearcats would not surrender. The team built a 15-point cushion throughout the early part of the second half but failed to put Lincoln away.
Northwest showed flashes of the team it has been all season without playing to its full potential in the contest. In a way, the game was defined by the Bearcats’ uneven play that ultimately teetered in their favor.
“Every once in a while we get that look on our face like it’s a deer in the headlights-- like we’re scared to lose,” McCollum said. “When you do that, you get very passive and very defensive, rather than aggressive. I saw that look for a little while tonight.”
Welty’s buzzer-beater was his only basket of the contest. Senior swingman Joey Witthus ended the first half with zero points but scored 15 in the second. Sophomore guard Ryan Hawkins scored just three points in the second half after entering the break with 12. In all, the Bearcats were inconsistent.
The team shot well from the field all night, ending the game with a 50.9 field goal percentage, though the shot selection and rate differed through the game. After shooting 7-of-14 from three in the first half, the Bearcats shot just 1-of-6 from beyond the arc in the second.
McCollum was unimpressed with his team’s ability to get to the rim despite Lincoln’s tough perimeter defense.
“Golly, we’ve got five shooters on the floor at all times,” McCollum said half-jokingly. “I’m confused as to why we don’t drive-- probably poor coaching.”
In a game that was punctuated by unsteady performances, Northwest’s bench proved to be its saving grace. Led by Bernard with 13 points, Northwest’s bench outscored Lincoln 26-6, while the true freshman guard continued to be a consistent source of energy for the Bearcats.
“I think our whole team is just good across the board,” guard Trevor Hudgins said. “Off the bench, starters; we go against each other every day. I believe in all our guys. (Bernard) is incredible, as you can see. (He) brings energy. We get it done as a team.”
The Bearcats overcame their shortcomings and were able to edge Lincoln for their eighth consecutive conference-season-opening win. Over the course of young season, Northwest has looked unbeatable more often than not. Over the course of four quarters in Bearcat Arena Thursday night, Lincoln exposed weaknesses that winning previously disguised.
In the aftermath of Northwest’s ninth-straight victory to start the year, McCollum praised Lincoln while underlining the focus on Lindenwood going forward. After toughing out a victory over a capable conference opponent, Northwest will look to do so again Dec. 8 against the Lions.
“I thought they were fantastic, Lincoln was,” McCollum said. “They had a great game plan. We’ve got to get better and we’ve got to get better quick because Lindenwood is really good.”