After three straight years of trudging out of the visiting gymnasium as the region runner-up, Northwest Missouri State optimized its position the fourth time.
The Bearcats are the nation’s top-ranked team. They were playing in Bearcat Arena. All signs pointed to a breakthrough.
That’s why the collective breaths were held as a last-ditch three-point attempt by visiting Southwest Minnesota State flew toward the basket just before the buzzer bidding to provide overtime.
But the ball clanked away and the celebration began.
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Northwest Missouri State’s 55-52 triumph Tuesday in the Central Region title game means a trip to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight next week in Sioux Falls, S.D., and the outcome a produced a huge exhale by the program.
“Tonight for us is very special,” Northwest Missouri coach Ben McCollum said. “We’ve been here, it’s our fourth straight year. You feel like, ‘Let’s just close this thing out.’ ”
It wasn’t that kind of game. The Mustangs controlled the tempo. They never led after 13-11, but the Bearcats could never gain a comfortable advantage, mostly because of poor perimeter shooting.
Northwest Missouri (32-1) missed 14 of 15 from beyond the three-point arc, reducing the offense to whatever point guard Justin Pitts could provide.
And that was plenty, although not from the outside. Pitts made the team’s only three but took nine attempts
Still, Pitts, a junior from Blue Springs South, made big play after big play. In a tight, tense game, he had the ball in his hands on every possession, for most of the possession, attempting to make something happen.
Many of his 25 points came on drives that ended in short, tear-drop shots. Pitts also chipped in five rebounds and five assists, the biggest occurring with a little more than 2 minutes remaining on a dish to D’Vante Mosby. The Bearcats had run nearly 2 minutes off the clock by getting offensive rebounds, and Mosby's basket gave Northwest Missouri a 47-42 lead.
But Mustangs’ guard Taylor Schafer had heated up. He went on a binge of eight straight points, and the lefty’s 18-footer closed the score to 48-47 with 1:48 remaining.
After this, the ball rarely left Pitts’ hands. He had two buckets and three free throws down the stretch.
But his miss at the stripe with 4.9 seconds remaining kept the door open.
The Mustangs’ top player, guard Ryan Bruggeman, got the ball and hoisted a contested three-pointer. The ball banged off the iron just as the buzzer sounded, touching off a loud celebration for the Bearcats.
“This means a lot,” said Pitts, voted the region’s most outstanding player. “After last year’s loss a lot of us stayed here most of the summer and worked hard in the offseason and the preseason. We’ve been so close the last three years.”
In two of those years, Northwest Missouri lost this game to the eventual national champion, including Central Missouri in 2014. Shortly after that championship, Mules’ coach Kim Anderson took over at Missouri.
The nets came down, photos with the region trophy and banners were snapped and Northwest Missouri finally got to experience a title.
But it’s a tricky spot. As good and relieved as the Bearcats feel, there’s a sense of unfinished business. The Bearcats will head to the national championship perhaps as the favorite. It’s the third trip to the Elite Eight in program history, the first since 2004, and Northwest Missorui seeks its first victory there.
“Our guys need a refresher, the need a break mentally,” McCollum said. “They deserve it.”
He left the postgame meeting with reporters to begin working on game prep for next week.