In its victory in the NCAA Division II championship game, Northwest Missouri State started fast and never let up.
But it’s just as accurate to suggest the title, clinched with Saturday’s 71-61 triumph over Fairmont State (W.Va.) in Sioux Falls, S.D., was four years in the making.
The Bearcats had lost in the regional championship game — one game short of the Elite Eight — the previous three seasons.
After last season, with most of the team returning, the players stayed together and played throughout the summer, determined to clear that hurdle.
Northwest Missouri did that and more. The team put together a season for the ages, a top ranking, 35-1 record, regional championship, and now the program’s first national title.
On Saturday, Northwest Missouri scored the game’s first seven points and never trailed. The Bearcats extended an 11-point halftime lead to 14 on Justin Pitts’ three-pointer. Fairmont State’s Matt Bingaya went on a personal 6-0 run before Pitts responded with another three.
Fairmont State entered the game averaging 95 points, but it couldn’t muster much offense, and its press was largely useless against the Bearcats, who committed just 12 turnovers.
“We came out with no fear,” which was unbelievable,” Bearcats coach Ben McCollum told Bearcatsports.com. “I knew if we had any chance to beat them, you have to kind of bully the bullies. They get after it so much and make it really difficult for you.”
Pitts, the NABC Division II player of the year, finished with 23 points and was voted most outstanding player of the Elite Eight. The junior from Blue Springs played all 40 minutes and committed just one turnover.
“It’s what Coach Mac preached to us yesterday,” Pitts said. “You might as well go out there and have fun, and that is what we did today.”
Chris-Ebou Ndow was the workhorse on the boards with 18 rebounds to go along with 17 points and joined Pitts on the all-tournament team. Anthony Woods added 13 points.
Northwest Missouri entered the game as the only program in Division II history to play for the NCAA championship in football and men’s basketball. Now, it has become the first program in Division I or II to win titles in those sports in the same year since Division I Florida in 2006-07.
The records of the Bearcats’ basketball and football teams added up to 50-1.