ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – Although not in midseason form, Northwest Missouri State’s men’s basketball team put together a nice game Friday afternoon. The Bearcats, coming off a 35-1, national championship season, beat Upper Iowa 89-65 at the 26th annual Hillyard Tip-Off Classic at the Missouri Western Fieldhouse.
Northwest, which needed overtime to beat Upper Iowa in the first round of the NCAA Division II Tournament last season, never trailed in the season-opening game for both teams.
The outcome was more reminiscent of last year’s opener when Northwest defeated Upper Iowa 87-52. Understandably, the Bearcats weren’t as crisp. They lost three key seniors from last year.
“We were okay,” Northwest coach Ben McCollum said. “I think the expectation for myself and the players was we were just going to come in and click on all cylinders right away. That was not the case.”
Northwest started four players with considerable championship experience, which includes senior Justin Pitts, the Division II national player of the year from last year. Pitts was definitely in top form, finishing with a game-high 30 points on 12 of 19 shooting.
“Overall, I think we did pretty good,” Pitts said. “We got a little sluggish in the first half. We picked it up in the second half and played a better second half than the first.”
Junior Joey Witthus is the newcomer in the starting group of Pitts, and seniors Chris-Ebou Ndow, Xavier Kurth, and Brett Dougherty. And they rolled together quite well midway through the second half when the Bearcats opened up a sizeable lead.
“We do have a lot of returners, but we are playing a lot of new guys,” McCollum said. “You saw that today. It was a good victory. I don’t think the score was indicative of how close the game actually was. We need to get everybody involved. We didn’t play with the intensity I wanted them to play with today.”
The best sequence came when Northwest made four crisp passes that led to a wide-open three-point attempt from Ryan Welty. The shot hit off the front of the rim, but Dougherty was there to dunk the ball, giving Northwest a 59-45 lead.
Several minutes later, Witthus, a transfer from Minnesota State, hit his first three-pointer in a Northwest uniform. His trey put Northwest ahead 69-47.
“I know these guys will get me the ball when I am open,” Witthus said. “It felt good to be out there. These guys play so well together. They move the ball. It is just so much fun to play with a group like this. They get after it on defense.”
As for the core four, they each had their moments. Ndow had 20 and Dougherty added 13. Kurth played strong defense and scored seven. Also, the bench performed well, showing that this might be Northwest’s deepest team in the McCollum era.
It was going so well for Northwest that freshman guard Daric Laing came off the bench and banked in two three-pointers in the final two minutes.
“It feels good to actually play a game because we were getting a little tired of playing against each other every day,” Pitts said. “It felt good to get the win and play against another team.”
Northwest scored the first seven points of the game and maintained the lead for the rest of the half, taking a 41-31 lead into halftime.
In Northwest fashion, three different Bearcats scored the first three field goals. Pitts opened the scoring with a two-point field goal, followed by a three-pointer from Ndow. Dougherty concluded the early run with a strong move in the paint for a bucket.
After Pitts hit a three-pointer to push Northwest’s lead to 14-5, the Peacocks fought back and closed to 14-12. They matched Northwest over the next 7 minutes.
Leading 30-28, Northwest put together a nice spurt to close out the first half. It started with a basket from Kurth hit a three-pointer and Pitts made another driving layup, extending Northwest’s advantage to 37-28.
Northwest’s lead grew to double digits for the first time on a basket by Pitts, making it 41-30.
“This was a good test for us, for sure,” Witthus said. “We need to make sure we come out and compete and have fun.”
— Northwest Athletics —