Perhaps for the first time this season, Northwest men’s basketball coach Ben McCollum saw a void in his lineup, one that was exposed in the midst of his team’s 65-60 win over Nebraska-Kearney Jan. 23.
The Bearcats (17-1, 7-1 MIAA) built a 19-point lead with less than four minutes remaining in the first half of the game and promptly watched it trickle away, allowing the Lopers (12-6, 6-3 MIAA) to finish the first half on a 13-1 run.
McCollum saw his team rush offensive possessions and tire on defense. He saw his players display a lack of clock awareness. In the midst of a minor meltdown, he did not see Joey Witthus, the graduated-senior forward who helped lead Northwest to a 38-0 record a season ago, claiming the MIAA Player of the Year award in the process.
“I don’t like to evaluate last year (but) that’s what Joey was so good at,” McCollum said in the aftermath of the 5-point victory. “He just understood the game and we need to make sure that start to understand it a lot better without, you know, pulling back the bridal too much. … It’s a fine line and we’re on the other side of it, and we need to be back on the good side of it.”
After racing to an early lead and building on it for much of the first half, Northwest’s defense began to deteriorate and the offense failed to adjust. The Lopers chipped away and entered the locker room facing a 7-point deficit.
Statistically, Northwest’s performance wasn’t telling of a 5-point matchup. The Bearcats shot 50% from the field and 45% from three. They scored as many points in the paint (32) as the Lopers and outscored Kearney 17-7 on points from turnovers. They committed fewer fouls. They grabbed more steals. And still, they nearly allowed the game to slip away.
“We knew they have, in the past, they’ve been in big deficits like today,” senior forward Ryan Welty said. “And they’ve always inched themselves back, so they were gonna somehow find a way to get back in the game in which we were trying to make sure they didn’t. They just scored off mainly our mistakes.”
In the aftermath of the close win, McCollum diagnosed the issue despite his newly-claimed commitment to under-analyzing. After Northwest’s 65-56 win over Missouri Western Jan. 18, McCollum vowed to no longer enter the locker room upset after losses. The Bearcats, he said, needed to celebrate wins, no matter how the wins came.
“I’m gonna do my best to stay positive,” McCollum said after the win over Kearney, “and not be so process-focused.”
He did his best not to let his team’s situational unawareness weigh on him. He tried not to think about several Kearney runs that breathed life back into an inconsistent Loper offense, he said. He was not aiming to be reflective.
But for several more minutes in a converted-classroom adjacent to Bearcat Arena, McCollum was forced to dissect his team’s latest performance. The Lopers didn’t do anything he didn’t expect them to, McCollum said. Kearney’s zone defense allowed the team to rest for longer spurts than Northwest in the second half, he said. And Witthus’ presence, both on the floor and in the moment, was missed, perhaps more than it has been at any other point this season.
“Those big runs that we’ve given up — that’s the issue,” McCollum said. “(Witthus) played with such a good IQ and a good feel and a good pace and a calmness about him. We’re just different. Not bad, not better, not worse: it’s just different.
The game, of course, came with highlights from Northwest. Junior forward Ryan Hawkins scored 24 points and added a pair of dunks, one of which was a reverse-jam, that provided an intermittent spark to a muted home crowd at Bearcat Arena.
Welty, the sharp-shooting senior, scored 11 points and shot 3-of-3 from beyond the arc. Freshman guard Luke Waters shined in his first start alongside Welty, who he previously filled in for due to injury, scoring 13 points and grabbing 5 boards.
The matchup, in which Northwest did not trail for a single second, came to an untriumphant close after two missed Kearney 3-pointers were immediately followed by two Hawkins free throws to ice the game in the final second. In some ways, though, the game was defined as much by Northwest’s displayed toughness as it was a lack of situational play, of defensive consistency and of Joey Witthus, or at least, a player to act in Witthus’ place, slowing the offense in moments of Kearney’s urgency.
McCollum said he hopes there is a learning curve that comes in the wake of the win over Kearney. He called the Lopers one of the best teams Northwest was squared off with this season. And, before reflecting, he re-emphasized his desire to stop reflecting so much, to appreciate the 5-point win over an MIAA rival.
“We’re celebrating wins from now on,” McCollum said.