Perched in front of Northwest Missouri State’s bench, head coach Ben McCollum extended two arms toward his players and motioned them back and forth, a gesture with a specific message.
Slow down. Relax.
The pressure of an undefeated season was evident early, but the Bearcats responded more true to their form.
Northwest Missouri State defeated Missouri Southern State 82-70 in the NCAA Division II central region championship Tuesday night at Bearcat Arena.
Northwest Missouri State is headed to Evansville, Ind., for the Elite Eight for the second time in three seasons. They will play in the quarterfinals on March 27, with the Final Four scheduled for March 28 and the championship for March 30.
Northwest (35-0) is three victories shy of completing the first undefeated season in Division II men’s basketball in a decade.
But it didn’t look comfortable in the opening 10-plus minutes. Missouri Southern, coached by former KU guard Jeff Boschee, led 18-11 midway through the first half.
Ryan Hawkins kept Northwest in the game, scoring the team’s first 13 points. In an atypically quiet half, Northwest forward Joey Witthus made a three-pointer with more than 11 minutes gone, the first player outside of Hawkins to make a field goal, and gave Northwest the lead. It was the only bucket Witthus made in the first half. He is the MIAA conference player of the year.
Ryan Welty, a Park Hill South grad, made a trio of three-pointers on consecutive possessions during a 17-4 run that helped the Bearcats to a nine-point lead at halftime.
Hawkins poured in a team-high 28 points, and Trevor Hudgins scored 22 and was 12 of 12 from the free-throw line. Witthus, who averages nearly 22 per game, was held to 14, drawing the attention from Missouri Southern’s defense.
Kinzer Lambert had 27 points and 11 rebounds for a Missouri Southern team that averaged more than 87 points per game during the regular season. He played all 40 minutes. Cam Martin scored 20 but fouled out with 4:11 left in the game, Northwest holding an 11-point advantage. Missouri Southern finished the season 25-8.
Northwest is returning to a familiar stage of the tournament. Its celebration Tuesday in front of a jam-packed arena was muted. The Bearcats won their first national championship in 2017. They had never previously reached the Final Four.
It’s a new era. The Bearcats won a sixth straight MIAA championship this season — Missouri Southern was third in the same conference — a league record. They have won 66 of their past 68 home games after Tuesday’s victory.