Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Northwest men’s basketball’s history-making blowout win over the University of Saint Mary Nov. 11 was how long it took the Bearcats to take the lead.
Six minutes and 45 seconds in the contest, Northwest (5-0) took its first and last lead over the Spires after starting the game in somewhat of a slide, one coach Ben McCollum and junior forward Ryan Hawkins both attributed to a lack of focus. In the end, the team walked away with a 92-40 win over Saint Mary for its 43rd consecutive win, good for a program and MIAA record.
In a game in which the Bearcats shot 55.6% from the field and 44.8% from downtown, and in a game in which they allowed 16 points in the last 20 minutes, McCollum said the team “played OK.” Hawkins said the offense executed at will.
“I mean, everything was there,” Hawkins said. “We were, like I said, we were just so sped up. Got a couple of cheap buckets there at the end.”
The win, of course, came with the fall of a record that stood for 90 years. Northwest broke its own MIAA record for consecutive wins in a row, one set in the 1929-30 season. For McCollum, the record didn’t mean much. But in the aftermath of the win over Saint Mary, the coach showed a rare glimpse of appreciation for the historical implications of what his team accomplished.
“Yeah, I’m gonna go celebrate it tonight,” McCollum joked before his tone turned serious. “No, I — I think what it does is it shows the consistency of our program and even in today’s generation. ’Cause through that, it seems from the outside looking in that there’s no adversity through this, you know, whatever, however many games it is, through the streak. Well, there is. And our kids have battled through that each and every time.”
Hawkins, who finished the contest with 19 points, said the Bearcats’ slow start was due to an early inability to engage, something that comes inherently with matchups like the one against Saint Mary, one destined to be a blowout.
McCollum, though, joked that Hawkins’ lack of focus is a trait that comes with every matchup. Hawkins’ relaxed play style has come to define the forward, who’s become a staple in a Northwest offense that’s won 43 games in a row.
“I’ll be honest, I (joke around) in most games,” Hawkins said. “I don’t want to say the scoreboard depends on it, but if you’re not having fun, I don’t enjoy it. I don’t like playing being uptight and playing angry. I don’t enjoy that.”
Northwest, of course, could afford to stay loose for the duration of its 52-point win over the Spires, particularly over the game’s last 33 minutes in which the Bearcats led for all of it. After taking the lead with more than 13 minutes left in the first half, they didn’t look back.
Hawkins finished the game with a double-double, adding 10 rebounds to his 19 points. Sophomore guard Diego Bernard, who McCollum said served as a spark for the team’s struggling focus early, ended the contest with a team-high 20 points, shooting 7-of-7 from the field, including 3-of-3 from beyond the arc.
“He sparked us and kind of got us that energy,” McCollum said. “That’s what he brings, is that energy and kind of gets everybody else going, especially defensively. He was really, really locked in.”
Northwest’s early inconsistencies, in some ways, highlighted the nature of the game. The Bearcats were expected to blow out the Spires. In the end, they did. But the struggles that came early in the first half epitomized and explained McCollum’s perpetual focus on the process.
A focus on a game’s result, McCollum said, tends to limit a player’s ability to focus on getting there.
“You can’t just go win by 50,” McCollum said. “That’s — you’ve got to compete each possession and I thought after about that first 12 to 14 minutes we did a good job. Before that, we weren’t overly excited.”
McCollum said the turning point for Northwest was arbitrary. It didn’t align with any timeout speech and emphatic encouragement. The Bearcats “just tried harder,” McCollum said.
The increased effort allowed McCollum to stretch his rotation further than he has all season, paving the way for significant minutes for redshirt freshman forward Luke Waters, who appears to be the team’s seventh man, and senior guard Daric Laing.
Northwest’s early lack of depth has been a weakness for the team among few others, one heightened by a season-ending injury to senior guard Kirk Finley. For McCollum and company, developing depth in early season matches, particularly in games like the one against Saint Mary, could be vital for conference play and beyond.
“They played well. They were a little nervous to start, then they calmed down,” McCollum said. “That was the plan, all along, to kind of venture outside that top six. … We just don’t have a lot of bodies, so we’re gonna have to find a way, I guess.”
Waters, who logged 23 minutes, scored his first career points on a pair of free throws in the first half and ended the contest with 13. Laing added 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting. Junior transfer Jaran Richman, in his first career game with Northwest, logged 10 minutes in the contest.
“You guys don’t see what they put on in practice,” Bernard said of the Waters, Laing and Richman. “We go against them every day. They go after us, we got at them. And they just got their time to shine today.”