With his team trailing top-seeded Fort Hays State by 12 points in the second half, Northwest Missouri coach Ben McCollum had one request of his team.
“Give me three stops in a row on defense,” McCollum said.
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The Bearcats did far more than that. Northwest did not allow a basket for the next 12 minutes, 22 seconds and stormed back for a 73-66 upset of Fort Hays on Saturday in the semifinals of the MIAA Tournament at Municipal Auditorium.
The Bearcats, 21-9, advanced to today’s 1 p.m. championship game against second-seeded Central Missouri, a 92-73 winner over Central Oklahoma.
Northwest junior forward Dillon Starzl of Kearney scored 17 of his team-high 20 points in the second half, including consecutive baskets that broke a 60-60 tie and gave the Bearcats the lead for good over Fort Hays, 20-8, which won both regular-season meetings.
“We didn’t lose our intensity,” said Starzl, who made just one of five shots from the field in the first half but six-of-nine in the second. “We didn’t want this to be our last game, so we kept fighting. We kept getting stop after stop. We kept getting big defensive rebounds, and we got offensive rebounds that were huge.
“They were doubling me early. I kind of expected it. I knew they were ripping me, I kept going up strong. I knew one of these times I was going to get it past the 7-footer (Rundell Mauge) so he wouldn’t block my shot, and that’s what I kept doing.”
The Bearcats trailed 34-29 at halftime and 53-41 when Fort Hays’ Ben Congiusta hit a jumper with 12:35 to play. That would be the Tigers’ last basket until a meaningless put-back by Mauge with 13 seconds left in regulation. Fort Hays missed eight straight shots from the field and turned the ball over five times during Northwest’s comeback.
“Hays is really, really good,” McCollum said. “To be able to hold them down the stretch is huge. For kids to be able to be down 12 points here’s what everyone in this (building) thought, ‘Well, it’s a good season, it was a good fight.’ My kids didn’t. They thought, ‘Okay, we still got this, we can do this.’ They believed and that’s special.”
“How much fun was that to watch? Even if we would have lost, it wouldn’t have been as fun, but that game was awesome. That was two teams going at each other.”
During Northwest’s comeback, they lost the services of guard DeAngelo Hailey, the team’s leading scorer, who suffered an ankle injury while scrambling for a loose ball with 4:49 to play. But junior guard Bryston Williams came off the bench and scored 11 points, including five of six from the free-throw line in the second half. Hailey, who averages 14.2 points per game, is not expected to play in today’s title game.
Central Missouri 92, Central Oklahoma 73
The hot-shooting Mules stormed to a 21-point lead in the first half but had to hold on to hold off Central Oklahoma, which cut the deficit to 59-55 with 11 minutes to play.
The Mules’ Alex Dean and Widget Washington each converted consecutive three-point plays, and Central Missouri, 21-7, went on to reach the MIAA finals for the fifth time under coach Kim Anderson.
Charles Hammork, with 16 points, was one of eight Mules who scored 9 or more points in the victory.
Central made 16 of 28 field goal attempts in the first half, but when the Mules cooled off in the second half, Anderson was wary of Central staging the same kind of comeback Northwest Missouri pulled off in the first semifinal against Fort Hays State.
“I had flashbacks from this year, it didn’t have to be Fort Hays and Northwest,” Anderson said. “We’ve had games where we’ve been up 16 and blown the lead, and we’ve had games when we were down 16 and came back.
“We got out of the gate and played well I knew they’d come back. I hoped they wouldn’t, but I knew they would. But credit our guys being able to slow it down a little bit when it got down to dangerous territory.”
Central Missouri out-rebounded the Bronchos 36-24, and the Mules’ 13 offensive rebounds led to a 16-2 edge in second chance points. Central Oklahoma, playing in its first MIAA Tournament, finished 14-14.
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