Zoie Hayward Feb. 27 Hays

Senior guard Zoie Hayward (left) hugs graduate assistant Macy Williams, a former teammate, near the end of Northwest women's basketball's season-ending loss to Fort Hays State Feb. 27. The game represented the last for up to six Northwest seniors -- though some might return due to COVID-19-related extended eligibility. 

With 48 seconds remaining on the scoreboard Feb. 27 in Bearcat Arena, Northwest women’s basketball coach Austin Meyer turned to one of the officials to ask for a timeout.

The timeout wasn’t used to draw up a game-winning play or give the team a quick break. Instead, it was used to allow the program’s seniors to take one last step onto the hardwood to cap off their four-year journey.

“I wanted to make sure they got recognition, you know, kids who have been in the program for four years, kids that were here before I got the job. They’ve been great. Great people who represent our program in a positive way,” Meyer said. “Where our program is at now compared to where it was before they got here, it’s at a much higher level. I think they have a lot to do with that in how they work and how they’ve gotten better.”

The 275 fans in attendance rose to their feet, showing gratitude for the seniors taking a program that was 5-22 overall their freshman year, to a team that competed until the last game. Hugs and words of encouragement and thankfulness were exchanged between the teammates, proving the game goes beyond a final score.

Northwest (7-15) was hoping to slip into the MIAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed with a win over No. 7-ranked Fort Hays State (20-2) but couldn’t get the job done, losing 70-47.

“You know, it’s kind of upsetting, but honestly, this year we’ve had a ton of adversity with three would-be starters tearing their ACL and all the COVID start and stop,” freshman guard Molly Hartnett said. “I honestly think we’ve played pretty well throughout the season, definitely will keep getting better in the offseason and prepare better for next season.”

The scoring droughts that have cursed the ’Cats all season came earlier than they would’ve liked, going the first seven minutes without producing a single point. The Tigers used the dry spell to their advantage, going on a 14-0 run in which six different players contributed points.

Northwest closed the first quarter strong with freshman guard Caely Kesten coming off the bench and hitting back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the lead to 19-10.

The Tigers’ stifling defense was a huge obstacle for the Bearcats in the second quarter, coming up empty on two possessions due to shot clock violations. Hays freshman forward Jessie Sallach ignited her team, coming off the bench and scoring 6 points in the second quarter, finding her groove with her mid-range jumper. The Tigers entered the locker room with a 60-27 lead.

Meyer and company were starting to see their season slip away, but he kept his team motivated to try and close the lead in the second half of action.

“Just fight and play hard. Try to play as hard as you can and, hopefully, Hays leaves and says, ‘Those kids competed,’” Meyer said to his players during halftime. “It was just, ‘Go out there, compete and fight.’ Obviously, the game is never over; that was the message too, but we just didn’t have enough firepower.”

Northwest never found its touch coming out of the locker room and was held to 11-for-33 shooting in the second half. Freshman forward Jillian Fleming, who was benched early in the first quarter due to foul trouble, scored all 7 of her points in the final two quarters.

Hartnett, the leading scorer for Northwest this season, was the only Bearcat in double-figures, scoring 10 points and dishing out three assists.

With freshmen scoring 41.3% of the points in games this season for the Tigers, they will be the team to take down in the MIAA these upcoming seasons.

“It’s going to take a lot to get up to their level. I mean, they’re great — they’re great,” Hartnett said. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work and great work in the offseason … and we have a lot of good incoming freshmen coming in, so I think that will be a good boost for us next season.”

Northwest entered the final four-game stretch of the regular season as the No. 8 seed’ the cutoff for participating in the MIAA Tournament after COVID-19 forced the conference to reduce the normal field of 10 teams.

The Bearcats had two chances to pick up a much-needed win against Washburn, which included the Feb. 20 matchup coming down to the wire, eventually dropping that game 41-38. History repeated itself when the ’Cats tried to create more separation in the standings Feb. 25 against Nebraska-Kearney but lost that game 50-53.

The close contests, mixed in with a substantial loss to Fort Hays, was a personification of the type of season the Bearcats had.

“Yeah, it was tough. Today we got in a runt offensively, and they’re really good. They did some different things, ball-screen-coverage-wise, that they hadn’t shown much on film, and I think it kind of caught us off guard,” Meyer said about Hays. “They’re really good, and again, we got to where the ball wouldn’t go in, it just becomes contagious. … A lot of it was them; they’re a really good team, obviously. They’ve won 15 in a row, so we were just a little outmatched today.”

Six Northwest seniors took the floor for presumably their last game of their collegiate careers, but the NCAA has granted another year of eligibility due to COVID-19 shortening a full season.

Meyer will meet with the seniors in the near future, laying out a plan on whether an individual should stay or should pursue the next step in life. Meyer and his staff will have some tough decisions to make as they’re looking to bring eight new athletes into the rising program.

“The message to all of them a couple of months ago was, ‘Hey, we’re bringing in eight new kids, so obviously we’re not going to bring everyone back,’ but we’ll address that here next week and see where we go from there,” Meyer said. “Our roster already is going to be at 15 or 16, so balancing that is tough. I hear stories all the time from coaches that kids aren’t happy because everyone wants to play … we’re not going to play that many kids, so getting kids to buy in is important.”

Northwest can use this season as a learning tool. After multiple postponements and losing three starters to injury, the Bearcats will look to grow. The ’Cats were top-five in the MIAA in scoring defense and had the fewest turnovers. Meyer and his team feel like they’re growing from a systematic standpoint, but shot-making will be the biggest focal point in the offseason.

“From how we’re doing things from our culture, to how we treat our kids, how our kids work, the time they put in and how connected of a team we are, I feel like we’ve continued to grow in those areas,” Meyer said. “We got to make sure our kids who got experience this year that were thrown in the mix … we got to get those kids better and continue to improve there. We got a really good group coming in, so I’m really excited where we’re going as a program.”

While the season was cut even shorter for the Bearcats, the promise of a talented recruiting class filling the roster has Northwest hopeful for a rising program. As for the struggle of the last four games, mixed in with the contest against Fort Hays, the ’Cats will use this as fuel for next season.

“I think this will get us going, and I think we definitely take away some big keys from this season,” Hartnett said.

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