ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — A year ago, in its first game of the 2018-19 season, Northwest men’s basketball went toe-to-toe with Northern State, a team fresh-off a title game appearance, and narrowly escaped the St. Joseph Civic Arena with a 72-70 win.
A lot has happened since then. The Bearcats won the other 37 games on its schedule last season and watched confetti fly after clinching a national title in March. They watched then-senior Joey Wittus graduate and then-freshman guard Xavier Rhodes transfer to Florida Southern. They watched senior guard Kirk Finley tear his ACL last week in an exhibition matchup against Duke Oct. 26.
And Nov. 1 at the Civic Arena, opening their season once again at the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame classic, three of Northwest’s starting five watched from the bench as a group of mostly-reserves closed out an 85-65 win over No. 22 Daemen College.
“It’s a huge win because I think (Daemen) is gonna be a 25-win team,” coach Ben McCollum said. “I mean, they’re phenomenal. … I thought it was a good win for us and I think, probably late in the season, that it becomes a huge win.”
Northwest fought through much of the matchup on the backs of six players, utilizing the same core it did in the 69-63 loss to Duke. The team’s pair of sophomore guards each logged more than 38 minutes, with Diego Bernard clocking 38:37 of action and Trevor Hudgins playing the entirety of the contest.
Hudgins, who dropped 27 points in the contest against Duke, tied for a team-high against Daemen with 24 points on 6-of-16 shooting. Bernard added 19 and continued to shine in his role as a walking highlight reel.
In the aftermath of the 20-point victory, McCollum said Bernard is “without a doubt” the most explosive athlete he's ever coached and the sophomore has added a sense of control to his game this season, something he lacked at times a season ago and something that McCollum said was important.
“He’s grown before our eyes,” McCollum said. “He did a great job — both of ‘em. I don’t think Trevor was on tonight. He was a little off; he just wasn’t there. I thought Diego was on just in a lot of ways, and so, we’ve just got to get a little better with that.”
Bernard’s explosive play came with an extra degree of intent in the matchup due to the game’s location. A native of St. Joseph, Bernard said he was playing for his friends and family in the crowd. Following his 19-point, 6-assist performance, in which he failed to successfully dunk despite several aggressive drives, Bernard said he couldn’t think of a better place to play basketball than in his hometown.
“My friends and family get to come down and see me. This is what it’s all about,” Bernard said. “Then we just go out there and put a show on for ‘em. … People come out there, they want to see me dunk. We had a couple of plays drew up, they just didn’t happen. We’re gonna try to get one tomorrow though.”
The pair of sophomore guards’ effect on the contest stretched beyond the box score. Junior forward Ryan Hawkins, who tied Hudgins’ 24-point total and drained 7 threes in the process, credited most of his offensive output to the success and reputation of the team’s starting backcourt.
“Trevor and Diego — holy cow, they attract so much attention,” Hawkins said. “They got me wide-open looks. … (They’re) amazing passers, amazing finishers. I mean, they can both shoot. When you’ve got two threats back there that you’re trying to stop, you’ve got to eventually leave somebody open and today, it was me. So, shoutout to them.”
The Bearcats took the early lead against Daemen on a Hawkins layup and didn’t look back. They didn’t trail Daemen for a single second of the contest. They shot 56.6% from the field during the game and drained 11 of their 25 field goal attempts. And they did so while still charting a path forward in the wake of Finley’s season-ending injury.
Finley’s injury coupled with Rhodes’ departure leaves Northwest without two key pieces of its rotation from a year ago. McCollum said he’s still figuring out how to move forward without one of his most reliable players. So far, the path forward has been a six-man rotation.
“It’s gonna be tough,” McCollum said. “But every season’s tough. No one feels bad for us.”
The decreased rotation size, of course, puts a greater load onto the backs of Northwest starting five and has opened the door to increased playing time for true freshman Wes Dreamer. The line Northwest has toed, though, is thin. Four of its five starters saw more than 38 minutes of action.
Hawkins seemed both the most and least affected by the increased workload. In the minutes after Northwest’s season-opening win, the junior appeared with bags of ice taped to his shooting elbow and his right foot. But Hawkins said he was unfazed by the workload’s toll.
“I love it,” Hawkins said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. You come here to play, might as well get it all. It’s a lot of fun.”
The worked starting five will have less than 24 hours to recover before the season marches on. Northwest is set to square off with No. 9 Southern Nazarene in the second leg of its weekend at the Hall of Fame Classic 5 p.m. Nov. 2.
In the two teams’ last meeting, Southern Naz pushed Northwest to the relative brink of elimination, fighting through a close matchup in the NCAA Division II Central Region Tournament March 17 that ended in a 70-59 Northwest victory.
In some ways, the Bearcats’ matchup with Daemen was just a warm-up for the challenge they face next. In the second game of the season, Northwest is readying for a dogfight.
“I like my guys, I think they’re tough,” McCollum said. “ I love to go to war with those kids so I think it’s (like) any team. We’re gonna compete and see what happens.”