KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the Northwest men’s basketball took the court for a matchup with Arkansas-Monticello as part of the Central Region Challenge at Municipal Auditorium, the top-ranked team in Division II was trying to avenge its first loss of the season.
The Bearcats were roughly 24 hours removed from an 83-77 defeat courtesy of Sioux Falls, a game in which they trailed by as many as 23 with 10 minutes left in the second half.
They responded Sunday afternoon, though, capturing a 75-52 win over the Boll Weevils.
“It was a good bounce back,” Northwest sophomore forward Luke Waters said. “It got momentum going into this week now with practice; we have something to kind of build off of. So, yeah, it felt great.”
Waters was the catalyst for the Bearcats, who were in a gritty, grind-it-out showdown with the Weevils (0-2) — clinging to a 7-4 lead — until after the first media timeout with 14 minutes and 50 seconds left in the first half.
After scoring Northwest’s (3-1) first basket of the game, a layup to tie the game at 2, Waters finished the first half with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting en route to the ’Cats hitting their shots at a clip of 54.2% throughout the first 20 minutes to take a 40-18 lead at the midway point.
It was a carry over that followed Northwest from the second half of their loss the day before, when they scored 40 points in the final 10 minutes.
“We were just playing more free that last 12 minutes,” Waters said about the matchup with Sioux Falls. “We were playing not trying to lose; we were trying to win, and I think that mentality shift is gonna be really important for us going forward.”
Even if it doesn’t end up helping the Bearcats for the rest of the season, it did against Monticello, especially for Waters.
He finished with a career-high 21 points, breaking the previous mark of 20, which came during a 73-63 win over Nebraska-Kearney Jan. 16. The second-year starter added three rebounds and a steal in 25 minutes of action.
“I just felt like it was a good matchup,” Waters said. “My teammates did a good job of getting me involved. Shots went in. It was just, overall, a good win”
Northwest coach Ben McCollum has been critical of Waters in the past, noting that he’s too timid at times. So when Waters shot 7-of-9, including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc, the 13th-year coach was a man of few words.
“He shot it. He shot the ball,” McCollum said was Waters’ key to success. “He shot the ball, fortunately. I’d like him to shoot open shots.”
Waters’ performance was symbolic of the afternoon, one in which the Bearcats shot 24-of-48 (50%), including a mark of 11-of-26 from 3-point land (42.3%). Both of those figures are season-bests, and the success came from the fact that the Bearcats passed the ball as effectively as they have to this point in the still-early season.
Northwest had 12 assists against Monticello, another season-best that was drastically different from the mere six assists against Sioux Falls.
“I thought we shared the ball much better than we had,” McCollum said in the aftermath of the 23-point victory. “We just exposed (Monticello’s) help, just drove and kicked, kept it really simple.”
The reigning NABC Division II Player of the Year and junior guard Trevor Hudgins contributed to the blowout with 13 points and five assists. Sophomore forward Wes Dreamer had 13, too, in addition to five rebounds and two assists.
But despite the Bearcats’ most dominant win yet, which featured three double-digit scores and eight different Northwest players on the board, McCollum expects more.
In the moments after the win, tucked away in a small hallway on the westernmost side of the venue, McCollum spent time reminiscing on the final 20 minutes of basketball — where his team outscored the Weevils 35-34, where his team allowed the Weevils to shoot 63.6% (14-of-22) and where his team eventually nabbed the largest lead of the game (29).
“Second half, I wish we would’ve been a little bit better,” McCollum said. “I wish we would’ve competed a little bit more, just because we need it. We just need — we’re trying to find ourselves, trying to find our rhythm. We’re nowhere near where we need to be at, but we’ll get there.”
Now that Northwest has officially gotten back on track, that the Bearcats have repositioned success back into their grasp after letting it momentarily slip away, McCollum wants his players to build on it.
He understands that being the No. 1 team in the country is accompanied by a target directly on the program’s back. That’s exactly how he wants it, and the Bearcats aren’t planning on diverting that challenge anytime soon.
“I think that people probably don’t realize how difficult it is to handle success. There’s nothing more difficult than handling success,” McCollum said. “Adversity, you can handle. Success, it’s just excruciatingly difficult. … We just gotta get back to doing what we do, and hopefully we can.”