ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — In a beige and white cinder block room, sitting behind a table covered by a pair of white tablecloths and facing a group of reporters, Northwest men’s basketball coach Ben McCollum was prompted to recall a performance like the one he’d just seen.
Junior forward Ryan Hawkins had just put up a career performance against Southern Nazarene in the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic. He scored a career-high 44 points on 15-of-22 shooting. He shot 8 of 11 from three. He grabbed 9 boards and he logged two assists. And facing the No. 9 ranked team in the nation in Northwest’s second game of the season, he helped lift Northwest to a 100-88 win at the St. Joseph Civic Center Nov. 2.
McCollum was quick to list a few performances he thought rivaled that of Hawkins, all from players who had monster nights against Northwest in McCollum’s career.
“I’ve had a couple kids — I had a kid have 50 on us,” McCollum said. “I had a kid who had 49. I had a kid who had 46.”
None of the players McCollum mentioned played for him. He couldn’t think of a player on one of his own teams that put up numbers like Hawkins did in the second game of the 2019 season against the Storm, mostly because there isn’t one. Hawkins’ 44 points were the most scored by a Bearcat both in the coach’s 10-season tenure and in the history of the program.
“Oh, no,” McCollum said. “That was good. That was 44, right? I don’t think anybody has, isn’t it since 1963, right? Yeah, so it was good. It was a good tussle old Hawkins, wasn’t it? Made a lot of shots. We like shot makers.”
In a game where Northwest trailed at halftime by a point and trailed by as many as 7 throughout the game, Hawkins was a saving grace. In a game where the lead changed eight times, he was a constant. In a game where McCollum said the Bearcats weren’t fully awake, Hawkins was hyperfocused yet unconscious. And in a game defined by shot-making, he was a walking bucket.
In the wake of his career-best night, Hawkins continued to credit his teammates, including the team’s sophomore guards, Trevor Hudgins and Diego Bernard, for drawing defensive attention and gifting him open looks. He said a few of the shots he took were “dumb.” When he learned his 44 points were good for a new program record, his response came with a dose of disbelief.
“Especially when you look at, like, Zach Schnieder and Justin Pitts that played here in recent memories, because Justin was a bucket and Zach might be the best shooter I’ve ever seen in person,” Hawkins said. “That’s pretty crazy.”
The performance, of course, came at an ideal time for Northwest. In Game 2, Southern Nazarene served as the highest-ranked opponent scheduled on the Bearcats’ 29-game regular-season gantlet. McCollum called the outcome “a huge win.”
McCollum reiterated in the aftermath of the victory the intent behind attending the Hall of Fame Classic, willingly placing a now-40-game winning streak further on the line in the season’s opening weekend. The mission, McCollum said, is for Northwest’s own weaknesses to be exposed by some of the top-ranked teams in the country. That mission, he said, was accomplished.
“They’re really good. Southern Naz is really good,” McCollum said. “To play them this early and to be able to win, you know, it was kind of just a shot-making battle. I mean, neither team was putting up a whole lot of resistance. And fortunately, we were on the positive end of that.”
While the Storm’s defensive resistance was nonexistent in Northwest’s 100-point outing, Southern Naz did serve the Bearcats a dosage of adversity, particularly in the game’s first half. Led by a pair of guards who McCollum described as “elite” in Jhonathan Dunn and Michah Speight, the Storm shot 58.8% in the first half and forced the Bearcats into the break trailing Southern Naz 43-42.
For much of the second half, Northwest was forced to overcome Southern Naz’s dynamic guard play with half of its backcourt sidelined. Bernard, who got into foul trouble and sat for more than 10 minutes in the contest, watched from the bench as Hawkins and company built a lead that, at one point, reached 15.
In some ways, Bernards’ foul trouble briefly handcuffed McCollum. In two games this season, and for much of Northwest’s exhibition matchup with Duke Oct. 26, the team has relied on a core of six players, due in part to a season-ending injury suffered by senior guard Kirk Finley versus Duke.
McCollum continued to rely on his dependable core of six players, which includes Bernard, Hudgins, Hawkins, senior forwards Ryan Welty and Tyler Dougherty and freshman Wes Dreamer. With Bernard sidelined in tightly-contested game, McCollum was forced to lean on the latter five. Hudgins, Hawkins and Welty played the full 40 minutes
In a moment that could have highlighted Northwest’s apparent lack of depth, the team hit too many shots for the potential weakness to become one.
“(The Bearcats) got in a little heater there for a little bit, didn’t they?” McCollum said. “I mean, it was like, ‘whoa.’ Hit some tough shots and the other team did too. … See, some people would call that game really pretty because the offense was so free-flowing. I would call that game really ugly because no one guarded anybody. I’d rather guard somebody.”
Despite McCollum’s view of the game’s particulars, the optics of its outcome for Northwest are strong. In the second game of the season, Hawkins topped his previous career-high by 13 points. Northwest shot 58.7% from the field and forged a second-half comeback. The team rode a band of six players to a 12-point win over a ranked opponent.
“Playing good competition right away is good for us, but at the same time, those games are a lot of fun,” Hawkins said. “I mean, it’s nice to win comfortably sometimes too, but when your adrenaline is running all 40 minutes there and you’re thinking you can’t have any mistakes … that’s fun.”