At the advice of his assistants, Northwest Missouri State head coach Ben McCollum employed the tactic of fouling with a three-point lead in the closing seconds of Saturday's rematch with No. 25 Washburn.
Percentage-wise the right play, it came dangerously close to forcing the Bearcats into an extra session after an impressive second half comeback.
Fouled in the backcourt, Washburn's All-American guard Will McNeill made the first of two free throws and missed the second one on purpose. The Ichabods grabbed the offensive rebound and had two quality chances to tie the game.
Martin Mitchell missed a short jumper and Joseph Smith had a tip-in roll off at the buzzer, allowing the Bearcats to preserve a much-needed 63-61 win over the No. 25 Ichabods at Bearcat Arena.
"Philosophically, I'm not a big foul guy in that situation," said McCollum. "My assistants are very statistical oriented. I'm more of a get the stop guy. Well, we watched the Wisconsin game a few weeks ago where they hit that halfcourt shot and they said statistically here are the percentages. I said 'okay guys, if this screws up you're all fired.' It almost screwed up. I almost had to fire my whole staff."
The narrow escape halted Northwest's season-high three-game slide, clinched a berth in the MIAA Tournament field and kept the Bearcats' slim conference title hopes alive.
Northwest (16-8, 9-6) remains in a sixth place tie with Lindenwood and sits two back of the conference leaders, Fort Hays State and Central Missouri with three to play. A loss would have reduced Northwest's magic number to one.
"I know we can be good," said McCollum. "I think the Dillon (Starzl) loss hurt our mentality more so than anything. I think we let it affect us. Then you lose a couple games, you lose your confidence, you lose your way. We just had to find our way again and we did. Now, we got to make sure we stay along that path and don't get off track."
A week removed from an 80-67 loss to Washburn, Northwest was able to fight its way out of a 10-point second half hole, thanks in large part, to the contributions of reserve guards DeAngelo Hailey and Conner Crooker.
Both scored 14 second half points, combining to make 11-13 free throws and 8-12 field goals.
Hailey finished with a team-high 19 points and hit six consecutive free throws down the stretch. Crooker shot 6-8 from the field and 4-5 at the line to finish with 16 points.
Reserve forward Grant Cozad added 11 points, giving the Bearcats a 46-9 edge in bench production.
Northwest's starters combined for only 17 points and only Starzl (eight points) made more than one field goal.
Page 2 of 3 - "They were smart. They were locked in," said McCollum. "We ran some quality plays. We kept it out of their hands when it didn't need to be in their hands. Some of our players, if you can limit their touches, but have them touch it in the right spots, then you increase your efficiency. And that's what we did tonight."
Northwest scored 11 of its last 13 points at the foul line, and two Hailey free throws with 1:22 left gave the Bearcats the lead for good.
Hailey's trip to the line came as a result of Bobby Chipman's fifth foul on what he thought was a clean block, the biggest of several disputed calls in the second half.
Washburn coach Bob Chipman was hit with a technical foul for arguing an illegal screen on Bobby earlier in the half that gave Northwest a free point.
"Twenty-seven free throws to 10; do you think that's fair?," said Bob Chipman. "I don't have a defense that can guard people from the free throw line. Their little freshman guard did a good job of getting around us a couple times. DeAngelo made a couple nice basketball plays. It was nice to see a basketball play because there weren't many of those. I don't see any games like that on TV."
Ahead by two, Northwest double-teamed a driving McNeill, forcing a kick-out to Christian Ulsaker who missed a tying jumper.
The Bearcats ran the shot clock down under 10 seconds when Crooker slithered free and lofted a tear-drop that took two bounces on the rim and fell in to give Northwest a 58-54 lead.
McNeill missed a desperation three-pointer, and Hailey sank two more freebies that made it 60-54.
Mitchell kept Washburn's hopes alive with a three to make it 60-57. Another one by Leon Flowers after a split at the foul line by Bryston Williams cut it to 61-60 with 11 seconds left.
Two more Hailey free throws boosted Northwest's lead back to three with five seconds left, allowing them the freedom to foul.
Northwest finished 21-42 (50.0 percent) from the field and 18-27 (66.7 percent) at the foul line.
The Bearcats shot a slightly lower percentage in the second half, but increased from 25 to 38 points due to 15 made free throws and only two turnovers.
They had eight in the first half.
Washburn was just 12-32 (37.5 percent) in the second half after shooting 13-24 (54.2 percent) in the first half.
The Ichabods (16-6, 9-5) also missed three of their five second half free throws, shooting at the end where the TKE house provided a background distraction.
McNeill led all scorers in the game with 23 points and shot 10-20 from the field.
Page 3 of 3 - He hit several difficult mid-range jumpers in the second half, but missed five of his last six shots.
"Those shots he hit were ridiculous," said McCollum. "He was on fire, but you don't lose to those shots. What you lose to is putting your head down when he hits those shots. All you can do is play solid defense and don't put him to the free throw line and make him continue to hit those shots."
Northwest contained all of the other Ichabods, including point guard Martin Mitchell who had just 10 points after scoring 20 against the Bearcats in Topeka.
Kyle Wiggins was Washburn's second leading scorer with 11 points.
Northwest kept the tempo at its pace for the first 10 minutes, reaching the second media timeout down just 12-11.
Over the next nine minutes, Washburn produced 20 points and stretched its lead to 10 twice.
The Ichabods were poised to go into the half with at least a 10-point lead, but after a Mitchell miss, Hailey hit a running halfcourt shot at the buzzer to make it 32-25.
"When I released it, I already knew it was good," said Hailey. "I practice that shot almost everyday."
Northwest's deficit returned to 10 early in the second half, but was erased quickly with a 10-0 run.
Scoring on nine of its first 12 trips of the half, Northwest took a 44-42 lead with 10:55 left on a three by Hailey.
It remained a one possession game either way until the Bearcats extended to a six-point lead in the final minute.
"If you keep it simple and keep it the same, I think eventually you'll get the win," said McCollum. "Our positive outlook is good."
Northwest concludes a three-game homestand Wednesday against Missouri Western.
Its final three regular season games are against the 12th, 13th and 14th place teams in the MIAA.