EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Following a disappointing finish to the 2018 season, Northwest men’s basketball was left with a hole only the best player in school history could leave.
That hole was left by Justin Pitts, a three-time MIAA Player of the Year who averaged 19.8 points per game over his four-year career. He exited with the winningest senior class in Northwest history and left a void at point guard after four years of consistency.
Enter Trevor Hudgins.
The freshman guard spent his first year in Maryville redshirting during Pitts’ final season, learning from Northwest’s all-time leading scorer. Hudgins explained how much Pitts helped him become the player he is today.
“Just guarding him every day and having him guard me (helped me),” Hudgins said. “Watching him play and just the way he plays (how he) keeps it calm and controls the game the whole time (was helpful). … He would give me some side notes in practice that would help me out a lot. I appreciate him.”
Xavier Kurth left the ‘Cats with another vacancy at the guard position in addition to Pitts’. Kurth averaged 27.5 minutes for Northwest while averaging 7.3 points per game.
Enter Diego Bernard.
Hailing from the same high school as Kurth, the true freshman guard was a headlining signee for Northwest over the summer recruiting season. His athletic ability on the court and on the field as a football player was envied by coaches across the area.
“From when I first met him in the summertime, I said he was fearless,” Hudgins said. “Ever since I saw him play he was fearless. That’s the one word I give. Fearless. This dude is a monster. Athleticism on 10.”
While most of the focus heading into the season was focused on Bernard’s 45-minute journey north, Hudgins surprised out of the gate. The duo has accounted for almost 37 percent of the Bearcats’ total points this season.
Just 147 days after its opening game, Northwest finds itself dubbed national champions after a 64-58 victory over Point Loma March 30.
Listed at 6-foot, Hudgins was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Division II Elite Eight as the freshman guard collected 59 points and 13 assists in Evansville.
After the title game, where Hudgins scored 12 points and Bernard tallied 14, coach Ben McCollum explained how early on he was skeptical of the duo but knew the ability was there for the backcourt to be special.
“To start, in the first two scrimmages, it would be like, ‘Man, I don’t know how these how these power guards are going to be.’” McCollum said “I knew they would be fantastic but to do it that quickly. I mean Diego is a true freshman and (Hudgins) is a redshirt and they’re national champions, they’re 38-0. That’s consistency at its finest with those two.”
The Manhattan, Kansas, native stepped up on the grandest of stages when he had to make up offensively for fellow All-Tournament selection senior swingman Joey Witthus, who went down with a lower-body injury, and Bernard, who didn’t play in the first matchup against Mercyhurst.
Hudgins dropped 20 points in his Elite Eight debut to the tune of 44.4 percent shooting on the night. Without his backcourt partner, Hudgins sunk a floater at the halftime buzzer to give the ‘Cats a lead and momentum heading into the locker room, which inevitably proved to be enough to win.
“He just hits big shots,” Bernard said of Hudgins clutch ability. “When the defense is on him I just slash and cut and he gives me open layups.”
The next day Bernard returned to the hardwood as he came off the bench against Saint Anselm and contributed 13 points toward the Bearcat cause. All of a sudden a spark of energy was seen in the team that wasn’t seen the night before.
“Coach put him in for a spell minute and it turned into a few more minutes than that,” Hudgins said of Bernards’ performance against Saint Anselm. “He just brings us energy. The energy goes way up after he gets in.”
When Northwest was tasked with guarding the Division II National Player of the Year, Daulton Hommes, Bernard was called on to defend the explosive 6-foot-8 guard. While Hommes still scored 26, the Bearcats’ defense held Point Loma to its lowest scoring output of the season.
“When we are on the court, we are always talking about the matchups,” Bernard said. “We just hype each other up and everything. I’m just happy that he is my teammate.”
Bernard’s focus on the defensive end allowed Northwest to hold its opponent at or below 60 points for the 19th time this season. The last team to score more than the Bearcat’s average points allowed was Missouri Southern in the Central Region Championship March 19.
Hudgins praised not only Bernard’s ability on the court but his attitude off of it.
“(He’s) just a great guy too,” Hudgins said. “He’s a great teammate. We play for each other, the whole team. He loves us, man.”
With this team comes a family atmosphere that is common in Northwest athletics and basketball is no stranger to that theme. The two guards have shown moments of that atmosphere on the court to make fans know it’s not just talk. McCollum explained the freshman pair have been the best to work with in terms of coaching and have adopted the family montra.
“I’m not exactly easy to play for,” McCollum said. “Let’s just put it like that. So I’m on their butts all the time. They get a lot of me and for a freshman to be able to handle that and lead us in that direction is pretty special.”
Looking ahead, after losing seniors swingman Joey Witthus and forward Dray Starzl, the Bearcats will once again have a young lineup as they look to make another run at a national title in 2020.
“Man, the sky is the limit,” Bernard said. “We get another freshman in there, Xavier (Rhodes), and it’s going to be showtime when we all three get in there.”
Sophomore forward Ryan Hawkins put his excitement for the coming years simply in the locker room after the national championship game.
“I’m very thankful I’m only a sophomore,” Hawkins said. “That’ll be a fun few years.”