In Dillon Starzl's absence, Northwest Missouri State's men have mastered the concept of doing just enough to get by.
Put at risk of losing because of a backcourt violation and a missed front end of a one-and-one in the closing seconds Saturday, Northwest came up with consecutive defensive stops to escape with a 52-51 win over Emporia State at Bearcat Arena.
It was Northwest's second straight win sans Starzl by a one-point margin and third in conference play.
With it, Northwest (14-5, 8-3) picked up a game on first place Central Missouri (15-4, 9-2) which was on the losing end of a one-point game at Lindenwood.
"I'm a big believer in positive energy and I think that energy kind of carries you through some things and is able to get you those wins," said Northwest Missouri State head men's basketball coach Ben McCollum. "I think that and the character of our our kids probably gets those wins. I don't think it's anything X's and O's. I think it is more mental, how do you win this game."
Northwest overcame a 20-point first half deficit and got a three-point play from Conner Crooker with 4.3 seconds remaining to clip Northeastern State 73-72 Thursday night.
Against Emporia, the Bearcats gave up a double-digit first half lead only to regain it for good with five minutes left and hold on late.
Northwest had a four-point lead reduced to one with 1:06 left on a three-ball by Emporia State's Gavin Brown.
On Northwest's next offensive possession, Grant Cozad fired an errant pass into the backcourt that was chased down by intended target DeAngelo Hailey, giving Emporia the ball needing only a two to go in front.
With Northwest's perimeter defenders applying heavy on-ball pressure, Emporia State's Taylor Euler drove hard to the baseline and whipped a pass back out top to an open Brown for three. Thankfully for Northwest, his shot rimmed out, and Hailey collected the rebound before being fouled with 6.4 seconds left.
In a one-and-one situation, Hailey missed his first attempt, allowing ESU to again shoot for the win.
Alex Sullivan stuck to ESU's Caleb Wright all the way down the court, and forced him into a difficult three that felt well short from 25 feet at the buzzer.
"We get two stops in a row with a one-point lead, that is huge," said McCollum. "That's hard to do and not foul. That's the positive attitude. A lot of teams when they make that turnover are like 'oh, here we go.' We just said 'ok, let's buckle down and get the stop.'"
Northwest won for the second straight game while shooting less than 40 percent.
Page 2 of 3 - In this case, the Bearcats made only 34.9 percent of their shots and had their third-lowest scoring game of the year.
But once again, Northwest held a decided advantage at the foul line over its opponent that aided its cause greatly.
The Bearcats were 15-22 (.682) from the charity stripe and Emporia was only 6-7.
That makes 54 free throw attempts for the Bearcats in the last two games.
"The only way to score right now is to drive, so we got to drive, drive, drive and shoot three's," said McCollum. "Just play small ball and defensively we scramble a little bit tonight and keep those traps hemmed in a little bit. That's our only chance without Dillon."
Northwest's No. 1-ranked scoring defense was locked in throughout most of the half, holding Emporia State to only 19 points.
The Hornets went scoreless for the first five minutes and still had only six points with under eight minutes left in the half.
ESU shot a decent percentage (45.5) and scored 32 second half points, but still ended up with its lowest total of the year.
The Hornets turned it over 20 times and had a tough shooting night from three, going 5-18 (.278).
"We like to get into the half-court and defend," said Cozad. "Get physical and duke it out."
Northwest only made 15 shots in the game and no one individually had more than four field goals.
Cozad's 12 points were a team-high and gave him back-to-back double-figure games. Hailey rebounded from a scoreless outing against NSU to finish with 11 points and hit 3-6 three's. He had a big one in the second half that pulled Northwest even at 39.
Bryston Wiliams and Thursday's hero Crooker finished with seven points apiece. Matt Wallace scored the team's first six and ended up with that amount.
ESU's two starting posts—6-11 Paul Bunch and Brown—scored 12 points apiece to lead Emporia. Reserve post man Michael Harris added 11 points.
They went a combined 13-20 (.650) from the field and gave Northwest's depleted big man corps periodic trouble.
"That guy was a load. He's a big boy," said Cozad of the much larger Bunch.
None of ESU's backcourt players registered more than seven points.
They were at the mercy of Northwest's perimeter defensive corps which rarely got beat off the bounce.
"We work daily on defense," said Wallace. "That's a big point of emphasis for us is to guard the ball and we did a pretty good job tonight."
Northwest threatened to take ESU out of the game in the first half, opening up leads of 11-2 and 18-6.
Page 3 of 3 - Down by 12, the Hornets doubled their offensive output on the next two possessions with a three and a three-point play to make it 18-12.
A Hailey three and two Cozad free throws put Northwest up 23-12 at the under five timeout.
The Bearcats kept an 11-point lead until the final minute when Emporia scored two quick baskets, one off a turnover, to get within seven at the half.
"Coming out, I thought our energy was great," said McCollum. "We just could not get anything to fall. We just kept getting our shots blocked. But the sign of a mentally tough team is they stayed with it."
Emporia State ensured it wasn't going away in the first five minutes of the second half, getting within four points.
Down by four again, Emporia ran off seven straight to take a 35-32 lead.
Emporia lost its lead briefly then got it back up to three on back-to-back scores from Bunch.
ESU then missed two three's that would've extended it to six.
After the second one, Hailey connected to tie it at 39.
Williams gave the Bearcats a 41-39 lead on a baseline layup that was a byproduct of a new zone offense that was implemented mid-game.
Emporia tied it at twice at 41 and 43 before two Hailey free throws put Northwest ahead to stay with five minutes left.
Sullivan followed an ESU turnover with a right wing three—his first after five straight misses—to make it 48-43.
The Bearcats worked the lead up to 52-46 on a press-breaking Cozad baseline finish.
Two Harris free throws and Brown's three made it a one-point game and set the stage for another Northwest one-point win.
"The mental grind is what the MIAA is 100 percent," said McCollum. "It's who's going to handle the runs, who's going to handle adversity, who's tougher mentally, who gives more effort. No talent stuff. I think that's why we've been able to get some wins now."
Northwest has back-to-back road games upcoming this week with Fort Hays State and Washburn.