When Northwest Missouri State last played Missouri Western Jan. 12 in St. Joseph, sophomore forward Grant Cozad and freshman guard Conner Crooker had yet to establish a consistent role on the team.
Crooker and Cozad logged a combined 17 minutes in the 71-58 loss, with Crooker taking the only two shots between them.
Entering tonight's 7:30 p.m. rematch with the Griffons at Bearcat Arena, Cozad and Crooker are now two of Northwest's most reliable offensive options off the bench.
With six double-figure games over the last seven, Cozad has raised his scoring average to 8.5 points per game, fourth-best on the team. While not as consistent over that time, Crooker has had games of 24 and 16 points in the last two weeks.
"Grant gets consistent minutes now. That's the biggest thing for him," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Ben McCollum. "Then Conner mentally has gotten considerably better. Just his toughness and his game readiness, he's been excellent ever since the Central Missouri game."
A float shot specialist, Crooker and senior guard DeAngelo Hailey headed up Northwest's second half comeback in Saturday's 63-61 win over No. 25 Washburn, with each one scoring 14 points. The reserve trio of Crooker, Hailey and Cozad combined for 46 of team's 63 points and shot a collective 16-24 (.667) from the field.
McCollum plans to use all three off the bench until further notice and is especially comfortable with Hailey in the sixth-man role.
He led the Bearcats with 19 points Saturday.
"DeAngelo seems to play better off the bench even though he's a starter talent-wise," said McCollum. "He just seems to perform better. I think he can get a feel for the game. Teams usually have two or three plays scripted and he struggles defending them, so now he's able to just watch and get himself into the game and come in and do what he does."
Hunting for a bye
Tonight's rivalry game with Missouri Western is the first of three Northwest has remaining against teams ranked 12th or below in the conference.
Tied for sixth place with Lindenwood, the Bearcats (16-8, 9-6) would likely ensure a top four finish and a first round bye in the MIAA Tournament by winning all three.
Northwest trails the current fourth place team Central Oklahoma by a half-game and owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Bronchos.
Third place is probably as high as the Bearcats can get with co-leaders Central Missouri and Fort Hays State both two games ahead with three to play.
Both would need to lose two of their last three and Northwest win out for the Bearcats to claim a share of the league title.
"I guess anything can happen," said McCollum. "I don't know that I see any way we could share the conference championship. Our objective is to win the next game and if we can do that, that would be great. We need to get our seed as good as possible for the conference tournament. Then we got to win that to make the national tournament."
Page 2 of 3 - Currently in 12th place, Missouri Western (9-13, 5-9) is in a battle with Truman State (8-14, 5-9) for the 12th and final spot in the MIAA Tournament field.
The Griffons could climb as high as eighth with a strong finish to the year.
Western is among the most dangerous teams at bottom of the heap, having already beaten the likes of Northwest and Washburn.
"One through six or seven, somewhere in that range, would all play for me considerable minutes," said McCollum. "They got an extreme amount of talent. They do a good job of recruiting. Their assistant does a good job of targeting the under-recruited kids and gets great talent."
The Griffons were the first team and one of only four all year to reach 70 points on the Bearcats.
Western's two leading scorers are forward Cedric Clinkscales (13.8 ppg) and guard Adarius Fulton (10.1 ppg).
Battle for eighth
Despite a five-game losing streak, Northwest Missouri State's women are one of four teams still in contention for the No. 8 seed, the last of four that provides a home game in the play-in round of the MIAA Tournament.
For the Bearcats to have a shot at finishing eighth beyond tonight, it's imperative they beat Missouri Western at home.
The eighth-place Griffons (13-9, 6-8) hold a 1.5 game lead over Northwest (11-12, 5-10). And with the Bearcats only having two regular season games left after tonight, a loss would prevent them from catching Western.
"Without a doubt, if we want to make any noise as far as seedings are concerned or potentially a home game, it starts with this one," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Mark Kellogg. "We need to play well. We need to find a way to win."
Northwest lost the first meeting to Western 68-66 in St. Joseph, a game the Bearcats led by as many as seven points in the second half and nearly rallied to win in the final seconds.
Both teams are led by first-year head coaches and have sputtered of late against tougher competition, losing six of their past seven games.
All of Northwest's last six losses are to teams ranked first, second, third and sixth in the league.
"We knew it was going to be a rough stretch here," said Kellogg. "Going on the road and winning in this league is obviously showing to be pretty difficult to do."
Once six games over, Northwest is below .500 for the first time all year and needs to win two of its last three to ensure at least a .500 regular season.
Kellogg, the winningest coach in Division II basketball over the last seven years, has never had a losing season at any point in his career.
Page 3 of 3 - "Obviously, you would like to keep that streak alive," said Kellogg. "I'm not sitting around hoping and praying that I get to .500 by any means. I think we probably got to win the next three games to guarantee that spot, so we'll take it one game at a time, and if we do that, maybe it will get us a home game."
Northwest Missouri State plays zone on nearly every possession and usually the soft spot is at the high post where the Bearcats are willing to give up open looks to post players who aren't adept at making them.
Facing Missouri Western center Heather Howard might force the Bearcats to adjust.
Howard, an Oklahoma State transfer who averages a team-high 13.5 ppg, is one of the MIAA's top shooting post players.
In the first meeting, she peppered the Bearcats in the second half with mid-range shots and finished with 16 points.
"We adjust it every game as far as what we're going to do in the zone or what shot we want to give up," said Kellogg. "Obviously, the scouting report will start with Howard and then we'll go from there. And yes, that's a shot she can obviously make. She can score from anywhere, so we'll have to do a good job of knowing where she is and making sure we're not losing her in the zone."
Northwest's other focus is cutting down on turnovers, or at least not allowing them to become layups.
The Bearcats gave it up 26 times to Washburn Saturday, leading to 26 points. They had 22 turnovers last time against Western that led to 21 points.