In its final pre-conference tune-up, No. 17 Northwest Missouri State unexpectedly found itself in a game every bit as competitive as what's in store in the MIAA.
Behind briefly late in the first half after letting go of an early 13-point lead, Northwest led throughout the second half but never fully rid themselves of NAIA York College until the final minute of an 80-69 win Saturday at Bearcat Arena.
The final margin of 11 points was Northwest's largest cushion of the second half.
Northwest led by just two points with under six minutes left and York College's Dylan Brewer attempted a three-pointer in the final 40 seconds to get within two.
It missed, and the Bearcats scored the final six points—two on a one-handed dunk by Matt Wallace— to improve to 6-0 minus star point guard DeShaun Cooper.
"I think the start of the game was probably the worst thing that could've happened to us," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Ben McCollum. "We were like 'okay, let's put it in cruise control.' They counter-punched us and we weren't able to respond to that. We just kind of cowered back and didn't respond until late. At that point, they had their run, and it's too late. Now, we're in a game. That's what happened tonight."
Using four and five-guard lineups that the Bearcats found difficult to defend, York wiped out Northwest's 13-point lead by making tough shot after tough shot from outside.
The Panthers were 7-14 on three's in the first half and scored 31 of their 35 points over the final 13 minutes. They drew even with Northwest at 27 with 5:30 left in the half and took a pair of two-point leads in the final 3:30.
"Holy cow, they were unconscious for a while," said McCollum.
Northwest scored the final four points of the half and two free throws by Grant Cozad gave them a 37-35 halftime lead.
It was one Northwest never relinquished, in large part, because of junior center Dillon Starzl.
In the second half, Starzl was an unstoppable force inside, scoring 16 of his career-high 24 points. He was 9-10 from the field and made 6-8 free throws.
With Northwest's lead down to 64-62, Starzl took over, scoring the next eight points.
"He was huge," said McCollum. "I don't even know if we would've been close without him."
DeAngelo Hailey (12 points) and Matt Wallace (11 points) also scored in double-figures. Grant Cozad added nine points.
Northwest made 26-41 shots from inside the three-point stripe and shot close to 52 percent overall.
The Bearcats were just 3-15 from three and an abysmal 19-36 at the foul line, allowing York to stay close.
Page 2 of 2 - York cooled off from the outside in the second half, hitting only 2-11 three's to finish 9-25. The Panthers still shot 46 percent from the field, but were on the wrong end of a 36-4 disparity in free throw attempts.
Frustration from their sideline boiled over late when coach Dalton Deal was hit with a technical foul for arguing an intentional foul that was called on Brewer.
York's Thaddeus Varmall scored a team-high 20 points. Mike Buffalo and Amen Osayande each had 10 points.
"I think if that was Lindenwood (Northwest's first MIAA opponent) they probably beat us, but that's taking nothing away from York," said McCollum. "They were great tonight."
Northwest hosts Lindenwood in its MIAA opener Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m.