KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Trailing Lincoln by multiple possessions almost two minutes into the MIAA semifinals, Northwest men’s basketball flipped a switch.
The adjustment sparked a form of intensity that did not wither, helping the Bearcats to a 86-69 win over the Blue Tigers at the Municipal Auditorium March 9.
Two days prior, Northwest (31-0) beat Emporia State by just three points. The difference between the two games came from the energy.
“Tonight we played to win,” coach Ben McCollum said. “We were ready. We understand its postseason and that it’s going to be 40 minutes now. We got to make sure we continue that on through the rest of the tournament.”
Each of Northwest’s starters finished the game in double digits. Senior swingman Joey Witthus topped the five with 23 points. Freshman guard Diego Bernard had 21.
Benard’s performance was a drastic improvement from his first postseason experience as a Bearcat March 7. He ran into foul trouble in that game and finished with just seven points.
“I didn’t play very well,” Bernard said. “I got into foul trouble. I didn’t have the energy I normally have for the team. This game, I had the energy and they just fed off of it.”
Trailing 6-0 less than two minutes into the game, Bernard took reign scoring on two layups and a free throw. Witthus laid the ball into the hoop from the inside, giving Northwest a 9-3 lead with 16:35 remaining
The Bearcats never trailed again, leading by as many as 22 points. Northwest’s performance was quite different from what it had in the MIAA quarterfinals.
McCollum attributed the difference to getting rid of the jitters the team may have had heading into the tournament.
“We’re young still, that’s the other piece that’s there,” McCollum said. “They haven’t played in postseason. I think they’re very very aware. The other team is playing to not go home. That’s a big deal.”
Lincoln (18-12) coach John Moseley spoke highly of the young Bearcats following the game, focussing attention on Bernard and freshman guard Trevor Hudgins.
Moseley said he, along with many of the other coaches in the conference, recruited Hudgins out of Manhattan High School but did not expect him to become the player that helped him become the MIAA Freshman of the Year.
“I think all of us thought he would be good,” Moseley said. “But would we think he would be this good this early? I dare you to find somebody who said that.”
Moseley also spoke high of what McCollum has built at Northwest, based on the team he has been able to consistently put together throughout his 10 years at Northwest
He also focussed on the season the Bearcats have been able to put together after graduating Justin Pitts, Chris Ebou-Ndow, Brett Dougherty, and Xavier Kurth last season.
“Personally, I hope for their sake, I hope they go undefeated and win another national championship,” Moseley said. “I think they have that kind of caliber team.”
The Bearcats move on to play No. 2 seed Washburn in the MIAA Championship tomorrow at 1 p.m.
Northwest is looking to earn a conference best fourth-straight tournament trophy March 9. McCollum acknowledged playing in the game, but said there is one final race remaining.
“It’s only special if you win it,” McCollum said. “I’m glad we won this game, but it’s pretty much a race. The objective is to win the tournament. That’s our objective.”