Northwest men’s basketball extended its perfect season with a dominant 82-62 win over Missouri Southern Feb. 2, beating the Lions in front of a packed house at Bearcat Arena.
For the Bearcats (21-0, 11-0 MIAA), the game served as revenge. Missouri Southern (17-5, 8-4 MIAA) had won two consecutive games against Northwest and three of its last four, including a 73-70 win at Bearcat Arena last February.
This time, things were different.
“I was really happy with the way our kids competed,” coach Ben McCollum said. “I thought we just competed a lot better than we had in the past. Defensively, we were fantastic. Offensively, we were OK. (Southern) did something (defensively) that we hadn’t seen yet, and so, it took us a half to kind of get ready for it and used to it.”
The Lions came out hot to start the contest going on an 8-0 run and forcing McCollum to call a timeout before the game was even two minutes old. From there, Northwest went on an 11 to two run to take an 11-10 lead.
“In these games, these kinds of high-intensity games, there’s a lot more chippiness and talking and stuff like that,” McCollum said. “Just being able to have our guys focus, lock-in a little bit (was the purpose of the early time out). So, yeah, I had to calm them down a little bit.”
While the Bearcats denied all week that the matchup with Southern held more weight than any other matchup, the atmosphere said otherwise.
Both coaches were animated from the jump. The crowd, for the most part, remained on the edge of their seats. Every call by the referees seemed to be taken personally. Senior swingman Joey Witthus admitted in the aftermath of Northwest's 20-point win that the matchup meant more than most.
“We knew this was an important game, especially with (Southern) beating us twice last year,” Witthus said. “There was definitely some extra motivation there. They are such a tough team. They play hard the whole game. What a fun atmosphere to play in; just a battle.”
The evening’s theatrics were perhaps best highlighted by a vicious dunk from freshman guard Diego Bernard in the second half, one that gave Northwest a six-point lead and earned Bernard a technical foul for doing a chin-up on the rim.
“It was a good dunk,” McCollum said, laughing. “He probably shouldn’t have done the chin-up.”
In some ways, the moment defined what Bernard has been for the Bearcats all season: a source of energy. In any case, it prompted some of the loudest cheers of the contest, shortly followed by the loudest jeers from the crowd towards the referees.
“It’s the best feeling ever,” freshman guard Trevor Hudgins said of playing games in such an exciting atmosphere. “Just that feeling, playing on the court with my guys, it was just amazing. Big games like this; the atmosphere, the fans… it’s just awesome.”
Hudgins, playing his first season of collegiate basketball after redshirting a year ago, scored 24 points in the contest, second only to Witthus’ 28.
Witthus, who’s averaged nearly 28 points per game over the last eight contests chalked his performance up to his teammates, per usual. While sitting next to Witthus in the postgame press conference, listening to him rave about his teammates, Hudgins appeared to think differently.
“Listen here,” Hudgins said following Witthus’ humble homage, pointing at his senior teammate. “This is the college James Harden. (He’s) big, big body. (His) handles; they’re on key. He has the ball on a string. He can shoot, drive, pass. This is the guy right here. This is the guy.”
Witthus and Hudgins led the offense, which is renowned for its effective and often use of the three-ball, to 82 points despite the team hitting just four treys.
The nontraditional and somewhat bewildering offensive outing showcased the diversity Northwest plays with offensively, something that has made the Bearcats unstoppable this season.
“Part of winning is adapting,” McCollum said. “We’ve adapted to every type of opponent, every type of situation. We’ve got to keep doing it now.”
On the heels of one of their biggest conference victories of the season, the Bearcats were celebratory, yet focused. They’re 21-0 and have proved undoubtedly over the last week that they are the best team in the MIAA by a wide margin. But the season’s most important battles still lie ahead.
“This was a big game for us, obviously, but we haven’t won anything yet,” Witthus said. “The job’s not done.”