Living on the edge finally caught up with the Northwest Missouri State men's basketball team Wednesday night.
After consecutive one-point home wins that restored conference championship aspirations, the under-manned Bearcats absorbed a deflating 59-58 road loss to Fort Hays State.
It was deflating in the sense that the Bearcats led by nine with 7:40 left, gave up the next 10 points, and in the final 1:10 missed a game-tying free throw and two go-ahead shots.
The last of those was an off-target elbow jumper from junior guard Bryston Williams.
"It was tough because I thought we played hard," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Ben McCollum. "I kind of felt like during the game we had more control of that game than we did against Northeastern, but snuck away with a win. This one we weren't able to. That's the nature of this league and how we play every game. Every game is going to be close. A missed free throw there, a missed rotation there, things of that nature are going to hurt you. That's what happened in the game."
Still in a three-way tie for second place, Northwest (15-6, 8-4) heads west again Saturday for a critical 7 p.m. tilt with No. 17 Washburn (14-5, 7-4) at Lee Arena in Topeka, Kan.
The two teams will play each other again a week later at Bearcat Arena.
Northwest will once again be without junior center Dillon Starzl (MCL sprain) as it looks to snap a two-game road losing streak.
The Bearcats won both regular season meetings with Washburn last year, but lost to the Ichabods in the opening round of the South Central Regional.
"They compete at a high level and play hard," said McCollum. "They're always well-coached. It's just a really, really good basketball team. That coupled with the fact that we have Dillon out, it's going to be a tough game."
The preseason favorite to win the MIAA, Washburn entered Thursday's action in fifth place, two games back of Central Missouri.
The Ichabods had a four-game win streak snapped Wednesday night with a very surprising 79-74 loss to Missouri Western, just their second at home all year.
"Western is really talented," said McCollum. "As far as talent goes, they can beat anybody on a given night. I'm guessing they probably hit some shots. For some reason, Washburn always has trouble with Western teams."
Northwest and Washburn represent the two top defensive teams in the MIAA.
The Bearcats are holding opponents to 60.2 points per game. Washburn is giving up 62.1 points per game, although both Western and Northeastern State have topped 75 against them.
Washburn's offense is producing at a higher rate than Northwest which ranks only 13th in scoring and has averaged just 55 points over its last two games.
Page 2 of 2 - Both teams rank in the top five of the MIAA in rebounding.
The Ichabods also lead the league in steals, turnover margin and are second in blocked shots.
"They're a very tough, hard-nosed team," said McCollum. "That's what they're going to do is try to beat you up on the boards and get a lot of steals and turn you over. They control tempo, yet they're all about easy buckets."
Ranked No. 2 nationally to start the year, Washburn's rotation contains much of last year's core. The Ichabod backcourt of senior guard Will McNeill and Martin Mitchell is the league's most dynamic.
An All-American candidate, McNeill leads the Ichabods and ranks second in the MIAA in scoring with 18.0 points per game. Mitchell, a senior point guard, is also among the league's top scorers with 15.0 points per game.
Mitchell went off for a career-high 32 in the loss to Western.
Forward Bobby Chipman (9.3 ppg) and sophomore guard Kyle Wiggins (7.7 ppg) are the team's third and fourth leading scorers.
"McNeill and Mitchell compliment each other," said McCollum. "McNeill is more of an inside guy than I consider him a guard. He plays a lot bigger than he actually is. He's a force down there."
Northwest Missouri State's two most reliable scoring options at this point are senior DeAngelo Hailey (13.7 ppg) and sophomore forward Grant Cozad (8.2 ppg).
They were the only two in the loss to the Tigers with more than two made field goals.
Hailey fell one point shy of his season-high with 23 points on 8-18 shooting at Hays. It was his second straight game in double-figures following a scoreless outing versus Northeastern State.
Cozad has topped double-figures in four consecutive games. He was 7-9 with 16 points against Fort Hays.
The Bearcats third leading scorer—senior guard Alex Sullivan—is going the opposite direction with four consecutive games of five points or less. He didn't even attempt a shot Wednesday night in 29 minutes.
"When you lose your best scorer and your next best scorer, it becomes difficult," said McCollum. "Instead of making excuses that we lost them, we need to defend a little bit better, increase our possessions and handle runs a little better."