March 9, 2013
Northwest rallies for thrilling win, advances to MIAA Finals
By David Boyce
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Northwest Missouri State men’s basketball team pulled out one of its most amazing victories, possibly in the program’s history.
Ok, that might be a bit of hyperbole in describing the Bearcats’ 73-66 win over No. 1 seed Fort Hays State in the semifinals of the MIAA Tournament Saturday afternoon at Municipal Auditorium.
“That game was fun,” Northwest coach Ben McCollum said. “How much fun was it to watch?
“Even if you lose that game, it was awesome. It was two teams going after each other.”
The road the Bearcats, 21-9, have taken to reach the championship game was filled with ditches that would have flattened a team not showing the mettle of Northwest.
To see the next chapter, show up to Municipal at 1 p.m. Sunday when they take on No. 2 seed Central Missouri. One more victory and Northwest makes its second straight trip to the NCAA Division II Tournament.
Saturday’s semifinal was dripping with Hollywood drama. Before the game started, the Bearcats saw teammate Conner Crooker, on the bench in sweatpants with an ice pack under his left eye, from surgery performed for an injury he sustained in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
Crooker was playing well and was a key offensive player off the bench.
Northwest, though, stayed close throughout the first half. But the game started to get away from the Bearcats early in the second half.
Fort Hays built a 51-39 lead.
“Here is what everybody in this room thought: ‘You had a good season and you gave a good fight,” McCollum said. “My kids didn’t. We still got this and we can do this. They believed in the final product and that is special.”
The Bearcats definitely did not quit.
“I am really proud of how the team played,” McCollum said. “In those types of situations, there is a lot of adversity and things go against you. We have been able to handle that all year.”
The momentum changed when Alex Sullivan hit a three-pointer that helped Northwest close to 55-48.
A few minutes later, Northwest was down two at 56-54. The Bearcats tied the game at 56-56 with 7:25 left when Dillon Starzl scored.
“We didn’t lose our intensity,” said Starzl, who finished with 20 points and seven rebounds. “We didn’t want this to be our last game so we kept fighting. We knew we needed to get stops on defense. Coach told us to get three stops in a row. We kept getting stops after stops after stops.”
That is no exaggeration. From the time Fort Hays held a 51-39 lead with a 13:35 left, the Tigers got just one field goal the rest of the game and that was a meaningless layup with 13 seconds left in the game.
Still, Northwest was in trouble.
Defense by both teams ruled the next two minutes and then the situation turned bleak for Northwest. One of the Bearcats’ top scorers, DeAngelo Hailey, went down with a left ankle injury with Northwest down 58-56 with 4:49 left, and Fort Hays headed to the free throw line.
The Tigers made both free throws for a four-point lead.
“When he went down, coach subbed me in for him. With one of the seniors going down, I knew I had to step up and make plays,” said Bryston Williams, who finished with 11 points and five rebounds.
There was no give-up in these Bearcats. Northwest tied the game 60-60 with 3:32 left on two free throws by Sullivan.
Starzl played a man’s game in the next two minutes. He didn’t let his shot getting blocked in the first half bother him at crunch time.
Starzl powered his way for two tough baskets in the paint that gave Northwest a 64-60 lead.
“I kept going up strong,” Starzl said. “I knew one of these times I would get it to go.”
Kyle Schlake tacked on two more free throws 30 seconds later, giving the Bearcats a 66-60 lead with 1:40 left.
And that was more than enough cushion for the Bearcats to pull out a scintillating victory.
Despite trailing 34-29 at halftime, Northwest played extremely well against Fort Hays.
In fact, the five-point deficit came late. The Bearcats matched Fort Hays nearly basket for basket throughout the first half. There were 13 lead changes in a highly entertaining half of basketball.
Northwest started the game with a three-pointer by Hailey. Fort Hays scored the next five for a 5-3 lead. Hailey put the Bearcats back on top with a three-pointer.
It went that way for the next 15 minutes.
When the Tigers got a little breathing room at 20-15, they saw Northwest fight back. The Bearcats regained the lead at 25-24 on a three-point play by Schlake.
Northwest’s last lead was 28-26 on a three-pointer by Sullivan. Fort Hays scored eight of the last nine points in the first half to take the lead into intermission.
Two players hurt the Bearcats. Fort Hays guard Ben Congiusta made all five of his shots, including three, three-pointers. Center Rundell Mauge patrolled the inside, blocking five shots.
The Tigers also shot very well from the field, hitting 58 percent of their shots.
None of that mattered in the second half. Northwest held Fort Hays to 30 percent shooting from the field the final 20 minutes of the game.
As they say, defense wins championships. Northwest defense got the Bearcats one step closer to a tournament title.
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