After capturing the MIAA men’s regular season title, the Northwest Missouri State Bearcats worked their way through the competition this weekend at Municipal Auditorium.
Ranked No. 13 in the country, the Bearcats looked poised to make some noise in the Division II tournament coming up, especially after the 61-53 win over Nebraska-Kearney in Sunday’s championship game.
Northwest was in the driver's seat for most of the 40 minutes, but Kearney battled hard down the stretch, cutting it down to six points several times.
“I thought we grasped control of the game and then just kind of hung on, and our kids did a good job of that and scored enough,” Northwest Missouri coach Ben McCollum said.
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Northwest Missouri point guard Justin Pitts led the charge with 18 points and five assists. Pitts also hit some crucial free throws down the stretch.
He was named the tournament’s outstanding player of the year.
“It’s all the confidence my coaches and teammates give me,” he said of his performance. “I just try to remain focused. I’m trying not to worry about how many minutes I’ve played or how tired I am.”
He also was pesky on the defensive end as well with four steals.
“It all just comes to me when a player makes a certain move and today it worked well,” Pitts said of his ability to steal the ball.
Early on the Bearcats continued to grind while their defense remained steady against the Lopers.
Senior Conner Crooker also had a decent day with six points and was named to the All-Tournament team.
Zach Schneider showed effectiveness inside the paint and from beyond the arc. He finished the game with 11 points.
Nebraska-Kearney relied heavily on its star player Connor Beranek, who scored 31 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
“They made it really hard for us. I mean, yeah, I got 31, but none of it was easy. I’ve got to tip my hat off to those guys they guarded me really tough.”
However, the momentum dramatically changed when Beranek picked up his fourth foul with 11:35 left, which made Kearney look around for someone else to take over the scoring load.
“We struggled to find a rhythm without him on the floor, but we struggled with him on the floor too,” Kearney coach Kevin Lofton said.
After the game, the Bearcats enjoyed the win. They cut down the nets, carried the heavy MIAA trophy all over the arena. But three games in three days in Kansas City drains the body.
“It’s fun. You get so exhausted from the three days, so when you cut down the nets, it’s like, I’ll celebrate in a couple months,” McCollum said with a tired look on his face.
Still, the team seemed happy with the consistency and confidence they are playing with now and know they can make a deep run in March again.
“I don’t think how we perform in this conference tournament will have any bearing on what we will do in the regionals,” McCollum said. “It’s a new set of teams and whole new set of problems.