Northwest Missouri State coach Ben McCollum can clearly recall the first time he saw Blue Springs South grad Justin Pitts. He can also recall that he wasn’t overwhelmed by the first impression.
“The first time I saw Justin, I wasn’t quite sure on him. Then he came up and played, and played excellent,” McCollum said. “We knew he’d be good, and we didn’t even give him a full scholarship coming out of high school … so obviously I’m not that smart.”
Pitts has long since made believers of McCollum and the rest of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association after leading the Bearcats to a 69-61 victory over Central Missouri in Sunday’s MIAA Tournament championship game at Municipal Auditorium.
“(His) redshirt year we knew he was going to be pretty special,” McCollum said. “He has an unbelievable basketball IQ, and he’s unselfish almost to a fault sometimes.”
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Northwest Missouri (30-1) built a 23-point lead with 13 minutes to play before coasting to the finish. The Bearcats won the conference tournament for the second consecutive year, and are set to play host to a Division II Tournament regional for the first time in school history.
Pitts received Most Outstanding Player honors for the second consecutive year. He was the Bearcats’ catalyst once again, scoring 26 points and doing approximately 90 percent of the ball handling.
“I have to give all the credit to my coaches and teammates for having the confidence in me to go make plays,” Pitts said.
Central Missouri (21-9) knew what it was going to have to do beat Northwest Missouri and extend its season. The Mules simply didn’t have an answer for Pitts, or a Bearcats frontcourt that piled up a 13-4 offensive rebounding advantage.
“They play as the ultimate team, and it all starts with Justin Pitts,” Central Missouri junior Spencer Reaves said. “The ball is always in his hands, and they’ve got great players that just want to win around him, and they make that work.”
Reaves finished with 15 points, and Kyle Wolf, a Rockhurst grad, had 12 points.
Northwest Missouri knows the quest for a national championship will begin at home. Beyond that, it’s time to get to work.
“I think maybe after the season we’ll reflect on hosting the regional and that being an accomplishment,” McCollum said. “I think right now, it’s not an accomplishment. All it does is give us an advantage in the postseason.”
Women’s championship: Emporia State 62, Central Oklahoma 54
Municipal Auditorium sits roughly 100 miles from the Emporia State campus. If the Hornets want to annex it as their second home, nobody could blame them.
Emporia State finished the women’s MIAA Tournament title game on an 11-2 run, propelling them to a 62-54 win Sunday over Central Oklahoma and their fifth consecutive tourney title. The Hornets (27-4) have won 15 straight at Municipal Auditorium, and advanced to the title game seven straight years.
Junior guard Jacee Kramer hoisted up an air ball coming out of the final media timeout, but that didn’t stop her from scoring the first seven points of the decisive run. Kramer finished with 13 points.
“Everyone on our team has a green light. I mean, step into that shot with confidence and shoot the ball. Don’t be scared to shoot the ball,” Emporia State senior guard Kelly Moten said. “Keep firing. We all have faith in Jacee, and we know what she can do on and off the ball. It’s great for her to hit those big shots for us at the end.”
Central Oklahoma (26-7) built an eight-point lead in the third quarter, but still went into the final period tied. Emporia State’s experience and depth took over from there.
“It’s March. Lace it up and play,” Moten said. “It’s win or go home. We’re winners and we’re champions. We prepare for this moment.”