Northwest men’s basketball pushed its nation-leading win streak one game further at Bearcat Arena Feb. 13, defeating Central Missouri 67-50 for the team’s 24th straight win.
The No. 1 Bearcats (24-0, 14-0 MIAA) fought through a back-and-forth battle with the Mules (12-11, 5-9 MIAA), ultimately claiming yet another victory. Now boasting a 24-0 record, Northwest has matched its second-best start in program history. The Bearcats started 24-0 in the 2016-17 season and went on the win the Division II National Championship.
For Northwest, it feels good to be 24-0. But the team realizes that its most important games are still ahead.
“This has been a great start so far,” senior swingman Joey Witthus said. “But, again, we haven’t accomplished anything yet. We’ve just got to keep going, get better at practice and take it game-by-game.”
For the second time in as many games, the Bearcats didn’t play to their own expectations. And for the second time in as many games, they found a way to win by nearly 20 points anyway.
Against Lincoln Feb. 9, Northwest shot just 40.7 percent but ground out a 75-57 victory. Tonight against Central Missouri, the Bearcats tallied a 39.3 percent field goal percentage, their second-worst mark of the season.
“I just didn’t think we were ready to go,” coach Ben McCollum said in the aftermath of the win over Central Missouri. “I didn’t think we competed to start and (Central) had a lot to do with that. I thought we missed some shots, some good looks. (Central) competed. They played physical and they were more ready and hungry and we were not. And that’s what happens in the league if you’re not ready to go.”
In some ways, the Mules stormed out of the locker room to start the game catching Northwest off guard. They led by as many as eight points in the first quarter, putting the Bearcats in somewhat of an unfamiliar position.
While the Central offense began the game on a miniature hot streak, it was the Mules’ touted defense that held Northwest down for much of the first half.
“They gave us different looks,” junior guard Ryan Welty said. “I think that’s what kind of threw us off in the first half. They would go zone and then they would go man. They hotted ball screens, which we hadn’t really seen this year. We calmed down in the second half. We did a better job of moving the ball around and finally hitting shots.”
Witthus and Welty led the charge for Northwest offensively, scoring 19 and 15 points, respectively. Still, Northwest’s offense was held to just 30.8 percent shooting in the first half of the contest and converted at a 31.3 percent clip from three for the game.
“It’s a fun style of basketball, but when a team’s making a run on you, eventually you’re going to have to stop just jacking up threes,” McCollum said. “We’re taking good shots, it’s just… It becomes a ‘my turn’ thing on accident. Our guys aren’t selfish, they’re just trying to win.”
The Bearcats have, for the most part, been characterized as a team that lives and dies by way of the three. They’ve proven a number of times this season, and more often in the last few games, that they can still win handily when their shot eludes them.
For 24 consecutive games, Northwest has found a way to earn a victory despite whatever circumstances they may face, and regardless of who’s shot is falling.
“It’s hard to not get frustrated,” McCollum said. “Our kids kept competing, kept getting defensive rebounds. This is what, the third or fourth game in a row that we haven’t really played overly well offensively? You know, it’s a good thing. We can trust, ‘Hey, if this happens, we’ll be fine. We can still win the game, we can still get stops, we can still fight.’”
While the offense heated slightly in the second half, shooting 46.7 percent from the field after the break, the Bearcats are still as cold as they’ve been all season. Sophomore forward Ryan Hawkins scored 9 points with a woeful 2-of-14 mark from the field. Freshman guards Trevor Hudgins and Diego Bernard chipped in 11 points each, relatively quiet numbers for the two freshman standouts.
But as the Bearcats see it, it’s better to hit an offensive slump now in the midst of the conference season than to hit one later in a win-or-go-home tournament.
“What (coach) Mac was saying is it’s good that we’re on a cold streak now and not in a month,” Welty said “That just shows how much we’ve been growing up over the past few weeks. We’ve been a cold streak lately, so we’re just getting stops and defensively we’ve been really great.”
What the Bearcats have done so far in this campaign is nothing short of impressive, and it borders on insane. Northwest has won 24 games in a row while starting four players who's prior collegiate experience ranges from none to minimal.
Despite that, Northwest has done nothing but win, while older, deeper teams have suffered losses. It’s improbable, though it’s a reality.
“It’s extremely hard (to be 24-0),” McCollum said. “It seems, from an outside perspective just because of some of the games haven’t been close and we’ve won games when we haven’t shot well-- it is excruciatingly difficult to continuously take everyone’s best shots every single night. (It’s difficult to take) their best scout, their best scheme and still be able to come out on top. These kids...make it look easier than it actually is.”
With the odds stacked against them, Northwest has fought its way here, claiming the top spot in the Division II national rankings and the best record in college basketball. But the Bearcats won’t hang their hats on that, nor will they look down the road. Their only concern right now is pushing the winning streak one game further.
“Obviously, you never want to lose a game,” Welty, the only Bearcat in the lineup who’s been 24-0 before, said. “Getting the 25th win would be really cool to get. Yeah, that’d be cool.”