No. 12 Northwest Missouri State's MIAA opener with first-year league member Lindenwood turned out to be every bit as tough as it looked on paper.
Up as many as 18 points in the second half, the Bearcats got pushed to overtime where they finally nailed down a 73-66 win Wednesday night at Bearcat Arena.
Northwest scored just nine points over the last 14:03 of regulation, but stepped up in overtime to avoid what would've been a really tough loss to swallow.
"It's kind of tough to give up the lead," said Northwest Missouri State head men's basketball coach Ben McCollum. "To be able to turn that momentum in overtime and still come out with a win, I think it's a positive. We got to figure out how to close out games better. We're still learning. Four of our five starters are new from last year with DeShaun (Cooper) being out."
Still one of only two unbeaten teams remaining in the MIAA, the Bearcats (7-0, 1-0) host another one of the league's new members, Nebraska-Kearney, Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
It's Northwest's final conference game until a road date Jan. 3 with Missouri Southern.
A win would lift Northwest's record to 8-0 overall and 2-0 within the league for the second straight year.
They'll likely have to get it without Cooper whose knee tendinitis issues haven't progressed in the last 48 hours.
"It's important to play well," said McCollum. "I don't think you can necessarily decide whether you win or lose. You can only determine how well you play, whether you play hard. If it means you win a game because of it, so be it. We're focused on playing well, competing and playing together."
Nebraska-Kearney is making its first official visit to Northwest in McCollum's four-year tenure, but the Bearcats and Lopers have scrimmaged often during that time.
Picked 11th in the MIAA, UNK (2-4, 0-1) dropped its MIAA opener to Lincoln 72-61 Wednesday night, a game it trailed by double-digits most of the second half.
The Lopers shot just 38 percent from the field and 3-17 from three. They entered as the league's second-best three-point shooting team at over 40 percent and had made close to eight per game.
UNK also ranks second in the MIAA in free throw percentage, but is last in assists and turnover margin.
UNK senior guard John Henderson is among the MIAA's leading scorers with 18.5 points per game. He's also shooting better than 44 percent from three.
Sophomore Pierre Newton, an Arizona State transfer, and junior forward Mike Dentlinger each average 13.7 points per game. Dentlinger scored a game-high 21 against Lincoln.
Sophomore Tyler Shields is the team leader in three-point percentage at 46 and averages nine points per game.
Page 2 of 2 - Defensively, the Lopers have had their share of struggles so far.
They surrender 77.2 points per game, a league-worst field goal percentage of .493, and have the fewest number of blocked shots and steals.
"They really shoot it," said McCollum. "They play extremely hard. They're well-coached. We have to be ready to go."
The Lopers outside shooting prowess presents a challenge to Northwest's defense which has yet to allow 70 points in a game this year. They held Lindenwood, the MIAA's top scoring offense, 19 points below its average even with five additional minutes.
Northwest's 13 overtime points put them over 70 for the second straight game.
The team's three leading scorers—junior center Dillon Starzl, senior guard Alex Sullivan and senior guard DeAngelo Hailey—combined to make 19 of the team's 26 field goals.
Sullivan and Hailey each scored 18 points, raising their season averages above 15 points.
Sullivan, who was 4-7 from three, is now shooting 52.2 percent on the season.