When emerging big man Dillon Starzl joined All-MIAA point guard DeShaun Cooper on the injured list Jan. 26 in Warrensburg, Northwest Missouri State's men were thought to be finished as a conference championship contender.
Yet with five games left in the regular season, the Bearcats (15-7, 8-5) are one of five teams within a game of the two MIAA leaders Fort Hays State (15-6, 9-4) and Central Missouri (15-6, 9-4).
Northwest is only 2-2 in the four games since Starzl's injury, but three straight losses by the Mules have kept the Bearcats and many others in the thick of the race.
"I would have liked to be better off right now, but there's nothing you can do about it," said Northwest Missouri State head men's basketball coach Ben McCollum. "We're just looking forward to the five-game season and we're ready to get after it. Our expectation is regardless of what happens, you need to be able to win championships."
Tri-MIAA champions last season, Northwest's hopes at gaining another share of the title are enhanced by a favorable late-season schedule and the possible return of Starzl as early as Saturday.
The Bearcats play four of their last five games at home, and the last three of the regular season are against the 12th, 13th and 14th place teams in the league right now.
This makes it at least plausible for the Bearcats to win out which McCollum thinks they need to do in order to have a chance.
"You got to win the rest of your games to stay in the conference championship race," said McCollum.
Even if the Bearcats fall short of a second straight regular season title, they can still improve their chances of winning the MIAA Tournament—and thereby reaching the NCAA Tournament—with a top four finish.
The league's top four teams get a bye from the first round of the tournament and are guaranteed to be among the eight teams in Kansas City.
"I think that's important, but I think if you get that mentality, you try to hang on for that top four instead of trying to fight and go take first place," said McCollum. "That's your goal and if you shoot for that, hopefully as a result, you'll get top four as well."
Currently tied for fifth, Northwest's two toughest remaining games are both this week with Fort Hays State tonight at 7:30 p.m. and No. 25 Washburn Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Bearcat Arena.
The Bearcats lost to both teams last week on the road, the first of those at Fort Hays 59-58.
Northwest led that game by nine with 7:40 left, but gave up the next 10 points along with a go-ahead three with 1:10 remaining that decided it.
Page 2 of 4 - Fort Hays has won five straight to move into a first-place tie with Central Missouri.
The Bearcats are trying to avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season. They are 2-0 under those circumstances already.
Post battle part two
Tonight's 5:30 p.m. rematch with Fort Hays State reunites what Bearcat women's coach Mark Kellogg considers to be the two best post tandems in the MIAA.
Except in last week's 65-53 loss to Fort Hays State, the Tigers (16-5, 8-5) held a clear upper-hand in the paint.
Six-four center Kate Lehman and 6-1 forward Katelyn Edwards out-scored Northwest sophomores Maggie Marnin and Annie Mathews 36-15 and out-rebounded them 21-12.
Add in Tara Ingalsbee's 12 points off the bench, and the Tigers finished with a 48-26 edge in post scoring production.
"We got worked in that category," said Kellogg. "That was a battle I don't know if we thought we were going to win, but at least come out even and let our guards maybe go to work and see if we can't win it at the guard position. We got to do a much better job on their post players. We'll see if our post players can step up to the challenge Wednesday night."
Lehman (15.6 ppg) and Edwards (13.3 ppg) are Fort Hays State's two leading scorers and rank among the top 11 in the MIAA.
Lehman also leads the MIAA in blocks with 4.1 per game, although she had none last time against Northwest.
Nevertheless, Kellogg thought her size bothered Marnin who was just 4-10 with eight points.
"We had tried to prepare her mentally, but I don't think she was ready for it," said Kellogg. "They are long. Edwards has got some length, too. She's not the thickest post player, but she's got some length and she's a really good athlete. I think we'll be more prepared this time around to go against it."
Marnin (11.4 ppg) and Mathews (9.6 ppg) each played much better in Saturday's 64-53 loss to No. 6 Washburn, combining for 29 points on 13-20 shooting.
They now rank second and third in the MIAA in field goal percentage.
Northwest (11-10, 5-8) enters tonight's contest on a three-game losing streak—tied for the longest this year—while the Tigers have won four straight.
The Bearcats are currently tied with Missouri Southern for ninth in the conference with five to play.
"We just need another Northeastern-type win whether it's at home or on the road just to keep us excited and keep us going," said Kellogg. "We just need some momentum right now. Whether it's some momentum to get into the conference tournament, give us a home game, get us excited for next year. Whatever it is, at this point, we need to build something going forward."
Page 3 of 4 - JC hurlers struggle
Brought in to improve a pitching staff that was among the MIAA's weakest last year, four of Northwest Missouri State's transfer additions had debuts that ranged from below average to very poor in the team's three losses over the weekend at Arkansas-Monticello.
Game one starter Blane Reutter, a transfer from Des Moines Area Community College, recorded just two outs while giving up seven runs and walking four in an ugly 19-7 loss. His mound replacement Austin Warren (North Central CC) gave up the next seven runs over 2 2/3 innings.
In an 11-1 loss to conclude the series, Northwest starter Ryker Fox (Kirkwood CC) allowed four first inning runs but recovered to throw three straight shutout innings. He was replaced by Dalton Perry (Oklahoma Panhandle State) who gave up three runs and walked two in an inning of work.
All told, Northwest (0-3) gave up 38 runs in the three games on 42 hits.
"I was a little surprised that we didn't pitch a little bit better, but at the same time I'm not alarmed about it," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Darin Loe. "We trust those guys are able to do the job. The first weekend we were putting some pressure on ourselves that we didn't need to have. Mentally, we got side-tracked a little bit and ultimately it led to some physical mistakes. We'll learn from it and get better the next weekend."
Loe plans to stick with his weekend rotation of Reutter, Marcus Garrett and Fox for the team's MIAA opening series with Northeastern State in Tahlequah, Okla.
Of the three, only Garrett lasted five innings at UAM but allowed nine hits and four runs during that span.
"When a guy throws so well in the fall and all year, we're not going to bench some guy for one bad outing in an opening weekend," said Loe. "We got confidence in those guys. We got confidence in each other we'll put it back together this weekend."
Northeastern State is one of six MIAA teams that has yet to play a game this year. The Bearcats are among three that got swept last weekend. It was their fourth such season opening sweep in a row to a Southern-based opponent.
"We can work as hard as we want to up here and get outside on a grass field, but until you're able to actually play a game outside, I think you're going to be behind the eight-ball a little bit," said Loe.
Notes: Northwest Missouri State's Porter Groves hit a provisional mark in the triple jump at Friday's Concordia Classic. The distance of 47-7.25 ranks him third in the MIAA and among the 20 nationally....The women's distance medley relay team of Taylor Woodruff, Ashton Nibert, Chloe Wichman and Anne Herbert earned a provisional time at Iowa State along with Tyler Shaw in 200M dash....Northwest's tennis teams open their spring seasons in different locales this weekend. The Bearcat men host Alabama-Huntsville in Red Oak, Iowa Saturday, while the women travel to Northeastern State Sunday.
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