EVANSVILLE, Ind. — In the aftermath of Northwest men’s basketball's 55-51 NCAA Division II Elite Eight triumph over Mercyhurst, coach Ben McCollum’s voice was uncharacteristically shaky.
The 10th-year coach showed a wide range of emotion over the course of the Bearcats first 35 victories — elated, perplexed, angry, even — but after a four-point victory in the NCAA quarterfinals, McCollum showed, for the first time in the team’s impressive campaign, a sense of pride that pushed him to the brink of tears.
The reasons why are both simple, yet entwining. Senior swingman Joey Witthus, the MIAA Player of the Year, was in and out the contest with an apparent lower-body injury, missing most of the final 13 minutes of the game.
Freshman guard Diego Bernard missed the entirety the game with a lower-leg injury and junior guard Kirk Finley fouled out with 1:32 left on the clock, the Bearcats clinging to a 6-point lead.
With Witthus, Bernard and Finley all ranging from incapacitated to inactive, a trio of Bearcats stepped up in their place. Starting Freshman guard Trevor Hudgins served as a crutch for the team in most of the final minutes while freshman guard Xavier Rhodes and junior forward Tyler Dougherty came through as unlikely heroes when needed most.
“I mean, this was an emotional win. This was a good win for us,” McCollum said. “We’ve got 11 total guys (and) 10 guys that are actually able to play, and we played six or seven throughout the whole season. So, eight, nine, 10 a lot of times don’t get to play.”
McCollum said earlier in the season that at some point, one of Northwest’s reserves would step up and win the team a game. Rhodes and Dougherty each averaged under 10 minutes per game on the season and even less in games decided by single digits.
Still, the pair arose when called on, making plays when the Bearcats needed them the most. For Northwest, Rhodes and Dougherty rising to the occasion along with Hudgins was paramount.
“I never would have thought that in an Elite Eight game, seven, eight, nine, is going to win us the game,” McCollum said, his voice growing shaky. “It shows the kind of kids we have (and) how special they are. And I’m very proud of their effort.”
Rhodes, who played a total of six minutes in the first three rounds of the tournament, grabbed five rebounds and scored two points in 17 minutes of action against Mercyhurst.
“(Rhodes) got five defensive rebounds. What is he, 105 pounds?” McCollum said jokingly. “He’s fantastic. … Did he even play in the regional? I don’t even think he played in the regional. And now he’s playing in the Elite Eight. That’s a special deal for him.”
Hudgins and Dougherty each hit a pair of free throws in the game’s final moments, icing the game for Northwest. Rhodes capitalized the win with a fastbreak layup, scoring the team’s final two points.
In some ways, the sequence defined what the latter half of the game was for the Bearcats: a group of players rising to the occasion. Hudgins, in particular, shined when Witthus exited, leaving the Bearcats without their highest-scoring player. The freshman guard scored 15 of his game-high 20 points game in the second half.
“He grew up today,” McCollum said of Hudgins. “He grew up. I hadn’t seen him do it like that. He won the game. He controlled it — and that’s hard to do. The way he did it, is very, very, very difficult to do. A lot more difficult than he made it look. I don’t think he’s done that all season … I don’t think he dominated a game for 10 minutes and won the game offensively like he did today (all season).”
With the season on the line and two of Northwest’s five starters sidelined for much of the game, Hudgins felt no fear, he said. He just wanted to win.
“I didn’t want to let my team down,” Hudgins said. “I just wanted to finish out the game strong … just finish it out together.”
In all, the Bearcats clawed their way to an Elite Eight victory over the No. 2 defensive team in all of Division II. The win came in a nontraditional form for the Bearcats, and the game’s biggest moments were conquered by nontraditional players, but in some way, the victory defined who they are and who they have been all season.
“What you saw tonight is who we are,” McCollum said. “Yeah, the stats are great, and we’re really efficient offensively, and really good defensively, and on down the line, and undefeated and all that stuff. But who we really are is that team you saw today, where you can lose a guy that plays 40 minutes, you can lose the MVP of your league … and still, in a dogfight, go ahead and get that win. That’s who we are as a team.”
Northwest toed the line of elimination and survived to fight another day. The Bearcats, whose health appears to be eluding them, will take on Saint Anselm March 28 in the second day of a back-to-back in a Final Four matchup.
They won’t celebrate their Elite Eight victory, nor will they let their minds wander to the thought of a national championship. That’s not who they are.
“I think today was good for us, just to prove that we can win relying more on our defense than putting up points,” sophomore forward Ryan Hawkins said. “But we’ll have to scout, gameplan and be ready for tomorrow. It’ll take another 40 minutes tomorrow.”