PITTSBURG, Kan. – One sequence with five minutes remaining in the first half perfectly capsulated why Northwest Missouri State men’s basketball team improved to 24-0 overall and 16-0 in the MIAA.
The Bearcats had little resistance in their 90-64 victory over Pittsburg State Thursday evening at Lance Arena.
Northwest had several runs during the first half to build a 19-point halftime lead, but the most impressive moment for people who enjoy hard-nosed defense came when the Bearcats held a comfortable 33-21 advantage.
In the MIAA, it takes more than talent to go undefeated in the first 16 conference games. It takes focus, and that is exactly what the Bearcats showed in the closing minutes of the first half.
It would have been easy for the Bearcats to coast in those final few minutes. After all, they cut down the nets last Saturday after clinching at least a share of their fourth straight conference title.
“This is something coach Mac (Ben McCollum) has preached the whole season of just not being content with what we have,” said Northwest junior Brett Dougherty.
Northwest played like it was in a must-win situation when it put the defensive clamps on the Gorillas. The Bearcats upped their defensive intensity and forced a shot clock violation.
The Bearcats turned that defensive stand into points on a basket from junior Chris-Ebou Ndow off a pass from freshman Ryan Welty.
“It was huge,” said Ndow of playing tough defense in the last 5 minutes of the first half. “They showed that they never give up, especially at home. Even though the score might not indicate it, they don’t quit.”
Ok, now Northwest held a 14-point lead against a team that only has two conference wins. Surely, the Bearcats could ease up on defense with a little over 3 minutes left before halftime.
The Bearcats seemed to be even more tenacious on defense. This time Pittsburg State did get a shot off. But it was a contested fall-away 12-foot jumper with 3 seconds left on the shot clock.
Odds of a shot like that going in at the Division II level is about 2 percent, at best. It is not much better at the Division I level.
Predictably, the shot didn’t fall.
Northwest grabbed the rebound and it led to a basket from junior Justin Pitts to increase the lead to 37-21. That 2-minute display of tough defense and efficient offense made it clear Pitt State had no chance of pulling the biggest upset in Division II basketball this season.
“We knew if we didn’t get on a run before halftime, they could have easily come back,” said Ndow, who finished with a game-high 19 points. “We knew it was huge to finish strong in the first half.”
The Bearcats went into halftime ahead 43-24. The only thing Northwest failed at in the first half was at the free throw line. The Bearcats went 3 for 10 from the line for 30 percent. Northwest, though, succeeded everywhere else, shooting 58 percent from the field and holding Pitt State to 38 percent.
Basically, the only noise made in the second half came from the Pitt State band during media timeouts.
With 14:40 left, more than a third of the Pitt State crowd had departed Lance Arena and that’s because Northwest dashed all hopes of the Gorillas clawing their way back into the game.
The second half started with a three-pointer from Ndow, and that seemed to spark Ndow who has been struggling with his three-point shot in the last few games. Ndow hit another three-pointer a minute later and then followed with a dunk, making it 53-29.
“They finally fell in,” Ndow said. “I just stuck with the process. I haven’t been shooting well this season, but I haven’t lose confidence and my teammates haven’t lost confidence in me.
“I believe in myself. I think I am going to be good going forward.”
Several minutes later, senior D’Vante Mosby converted the old-fashioned three-point play of a basket plus a free throw. The younger generation calls it And1. The end result was a 62-34 lead for Northwest.
The huge lead allowed McCollum to bring in freshmen Grant Graham and Kirk Finley in with 12 minutes left in the game to get some playing experience against Pitt State starters.
“It was great for them to get some quality game experience,” Dougherty said. “Pitt kept playing hard. For some of our younger guys to get in there and play like they did was great.”
Northwest, ranked No. 1 in the NABC top 25, has now won a conference record 28 straight MIAA regular-season games.
“A number one ranking, he (McCollum) has never been happy with that,” Dougherty said. “It is not the end goal for this season.”
— Northwest Athletics —