Already down its starting point guard DeShaun Cooper for the season, Northwest Missouri State lost leading scorer Dillon Starzl to a knee injury in the first half of Saturday's first place showdown with Central Missouri.
An even more depleted Bearcat lineup held it together for a while, but inevitably, their lack of scoring power caught up with them in a 60-50 loss to the Mules at the Multi-Purpose Building.
Up five in the second half, Northwest produced just 17 points over the final 17:11 and none for a four-plus minute stretch towards the end.
Only a three-pointer by DeAngelo Hailey with 10 seconds left allowed the Bearcats to reach 50 points, tying a new-season low. They also shot a new season-low 33.3 percent from the field.
The team's second half struggles extended beyond the offense.
Northwest gave up 36 second half points and allowed Central to shoot 50 percent from the field.
The Mules also won the rebounding battle 39-28 and ended up with 17 offensive rebounds, resulting in a 20-9 edge in second chance points.
Central led from the 13:31 mark on and used a 9-0 run late to go up as many as 13.
The win was Central's eighth straight and moved the Mules (14-3, 8-1) two games ahead of Northwest (13-5, 6-3) for first place.
The Bearcats, who trail upcoming opponent Northeastern State by a half-game for second, have now lost to Central eight consecutive times.
Northwest's only double-figure scorers in the game were Grant Cozad and DeAngelo Hailey, each with 10 points. Starzl had six points in his nine minutes of action. He injured his knee on a collision with Central's Charles Hammork with 7:44 left in the first half and did not return.
Kyle Schlake, Matt Wallace and Tyler Funk also had six points.
Central's Dominique Long led all scorers with 13 points. Post player Matt Webb had 12 points and 10 rebounds. Widgett Washington finished with 11 points, hitting 7-8 free throws. Hammork added nine off the bench.
The Mules scored the game's opening five points and held the lead until a three by Hailey put Northwest ahead 12-11 with 9:28 left in the first half. Northwest extended to a four-point lead three separate times, the last being 21-17 at the 2:55 mark. Central ran off five straight to regain a 22-21 lead.
Two free throws with 20 seconds left in the half by Wallace gave the Bearcats a 25-24 halftime lead.
Northwest lost the lead twice early in the second half before a 6-0 spurt put them up 33-28.
Central responded with five straight to tie it at 33. A free throw by Hailey with 14:44 left gave Northwest its final lead of 34-33.
Page 2 of 2 - Separate 6-0 bursts by the Mules put them up by 10 with 8:39 left.
Northwest threatened a comeback when Hailey and Alex Sullivan made back-to-back three's that cut it to 49-45 with 6:33 left.
A layup by Wallace two possessions later again made it a four-point game, but the Bearcats didn't score again until 10 seconds remained.
Long extended Central's lead to seven with a three, and a layup by Washington made it 56-47 with 3:04 to go.
The Mules hit four free throws in the final 1:23 to wrap it up.
Northwest returns to Bearcat Arena Thursday to host Northeastern State Thursday at 7:30 p.m.