Life on the road in the MIAA had been good to No. 24 Northwest Missouri State until the Bearcats pulled into St. Joseph Saturday.
A week removed from beating Missouri Southern and Pittsburg State on the road, the rested Bearcats were stripped of their undefeated conference record with a 71-58 loss to arch-rival Missouri Western at Looney Fieldhouse.
Northwest flipped an eight-point deficit into an eight-point first half lead with an 18-2 run, but Western regained the lead in the second half and never let go from the 14:24 mark on.
With the Bearcats trying to fight back late, the Griffons closed the game on a 9-0 run, hitting six straight free throws in the final 1:14.
The Bearcats dropped to 11-3 overall and 4-1 in the MIAA, losing for the first time in league play and the first time since their trip to Hawaii. They also had a five-game win streak over the Griffons snapped.
Western improved to 7-7 overall and 3-3 in the MIAA. This was the Griffons second straight win and third in the last four games.
"I think the way we played is more disappointing than the loss," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Ben McCollum. "If we would've played good and they hit shots, I wouldn't be upset. They executed when they needed to. They did a great job packing it in. They did a great job offensively being deliberate. Credit them because they played at their tempo and their pace and we folded."
Ranked dead-last in the MIAA in scoring offense coming into the game, Missouri Western became the first team all season to crack 70 points on Northwest's No. 1-ranked scoring defense.
The Griffons shot 25-51 (.490) from the field, 8-22 (.364) from three and went 13-16 (.813) at the foul line.
Western had five in double-figures and none were the team's leading scorer Cedric Clinckscales.
James Harris had a team-high 14 points. Reserve guard Kalvin Balque scored a career-high 13 and hit a pair of second half three's.
Dzenan Mrkaljevic and Adarius Fulton each had 11 points. Mrkaljevic, who was 4-6 from the field and 3-4 from three, also grabbed 10 rebounds to finish with a double-double. Alfreeman Flowers was the fifth Griffon in double-figures with 10.
"They hit a couple tough shots that they don't usually hit, but that's because they controlled the tempo," said McCollum. "When you control tempo. you have rhythm. When you have rhythm, you hit shots. They controlled the game. That's why they hit shots and we couldn't."
Northwest was 13-26 (.500) from the field in the first half, but went three-point crazy in the second half against Western's zone defense and shot just 9-27 (.333) with 25 points.
The Bearcats were 4-20 (.200) from three in the second half and finished 7-29 (.241).
Page 2 of 3 - They also committed 14 second half turnovers and 19 for the game.
"My guess is the bye week probably didn't help them,' said Missouri Western head coach Tom Smith. "Turning it over 19 times against a zone, that's not the sharpest I've seen Northwest. Normally, they're not going to make that many mistakes and there were a lot of mistakes."
Northwest junior center Dillon Starzl led all scorers with 17 points on 7-10 shooting. He was limited to just two second half shot attempts after going 5-8 in the first half. DeAngelo Hailey notched a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds, but was just 5-16 from the field and 4-13 from three.
Alex Sullivan and Bryston Williams each had eight points. Matt Wallace made all three shot attempts and scored seven.
Sullivan was just 2-10 from three and Williams missed all three shots from long range.
This was a case where the Bearcats could've used All-MIAA point guard DeShaun Cooper who missed his 14th straight game due to injury.
"He's a special player no question and you're not going to be able to leave him quite as much as we left the point guard," said Smith. "We had a little more emphasis on Sullivan and Hailey. We didn't have to worry so much about the other people. You put DeShaun out on the floor and that changes a lot of things."
With Cooper watching from the bench, Northwest went scoreless for the first 4:42 and fell behind 6-0.
The Griffons extended to a 17-9 lead on a steal and layup by Adarius Fulton, forcing a Northwest timeout.
Employing a half-court trapping defense that forced two quick turnovers, Northwest responded with an 18-2 run. A basket by Tyler Funk gave Northwest its first lead with 8:02 left in the half.
Western briefly went back in front by one before the Bearcats ripped off eight straight points.
A Sullivan three in transition gave the Bearcats a 27-19 lead.
Back-to-back three's from Hailey extended Northwest's lead back to eight at 33-25.
On the verge of being buried, the Griffons got a three from Harris and another from Mrkaljevic before the half to make it a two-point game.
"We were trying to pull energy out of them and trying to get after it," said McCollum. "We just couldn't do it."
Northwest started slow in the second half, giving up the first seven points within two minutes.
Starting forward Kyle Schlake turned it over twice and got rejected during that span. He spent most of the rest of the game on the bench, finishing with zero points and three turnovers.
Page 3 of 3 - With a smaller lineup on the floor, two Starzl free throws and a Sullivan three gave the Bearcats a 40-38 lead with 15:50 left.
The Griffons went back in front for good on a jumper by Freeman to make it 41-40.
Missouri Western had three separate four-points lead cut to one or two before beginning to pull away.
The Griffons crashed the offensive glass on back-to-back possessions, leading to putbacks for Fulton and Balque to make it 52-46.
A three by Fulton gave Western a nine-point lead with 8:40 left.
The Griffon lead reached double-digits on a Clincksales layup with 4:41 left that made it 62-51.
Northwest ran off the next seven points to make it 62-58 with 2:35 left, but didn't score again.
Down 63-58, Hailey missed a three that would've cut it two. Williams grabbed the offensive rebound, but had the ball deflected off his knee out of bounds for a turnover.
Harris hit a floater and two free throws sandwiched around two more Hailey errant three's to put Western up nine.
Fulton made four more free throws in the final 1:01 that sealed the deal.
"We've got to correct some things because we're probably going to get zoned," said McCollum. "It's not the end of the world. We lost a game to a team that controlled tempo. They sucked the life out of us. We can't allow that to happen again."