Eliminated from the conference title race Wednesday night, Northwest Missouri State's men stayed in position to nab the consolation prize of a top four finish and a first MIAA Tournament bye with a 68-50 win over Nebraska-Kearney.
All the Bearcats have to do is beat Truman State in Saturday's 3:30 p.m. regular season finale and they can go ahead and confirm their hotel reservations in Kansas City.
Northwest (18-8, 11-6) could finish as high as third depending upon how Washburn fares in its last two games against Emporia State Thursday night and Central Missouri Saturday.
A win by the Ichabods in either of those two games would relegate the Bearcats to fourth.
Northwest can only finish fifth with a loss to Truman, in which case, Northeastern State gains the four seed. The Bearcats would then be looking at a first round home game Monday night against most likely Missouri Western.
And they'd have to win that to get to Kansas City.
Unranked regionally, Northwest likely needs to win the MIAA Tournament in order to make the NCAA Division II Tournament. A first round bye would make that proposition easier to pull off.
"It could help you to play that extra game as long as you don't lose beforehand," said Northwest Missouri State head men's coach Ben McCollum. "If you lose beforehand, then it's not an advantage (to play an extra game)."
Northwest enters the regular season finale having won its last three games following a three-game slide.
The Bearcats trailed UNK by two at the half, but outscored the Lopers 44-24 in the second half and led by as many as 20.
Kearney's 50 points were the fewest given up by Northwest in conference play.
"I thought we defended well," said McCollum. "In the first half, there was a lot of slippage from being off for a week. We were just trying to get back into rhythm and that was to be expected. We came out in the second half and really guarded and competed. That helped us a ton."
Northwest is seeking its first four-game win steak since the Bearcats started 4-0 in league play.
The Bearcats swept the season series with Truman State last year by winning a double overtime thriller late in the year in Kirksville.
This is the first and only meeting between the two teams this year.
Truman State (9-16, 6-11) has already locked up an MIAA Tournament berth, but could move up from an 11-seed with a win and help elsewhere.
The Bulldogs lost Wednesday night to Central Missouri 76-64. Their most impressive win to date came at Washburn Jan. 16.
Page 2 of 2 - Truman ranks between 8-11 in almost every statistical category, including scoring offense and scoring defense.
Junior Mike Carlson is Truman's leading scorer with 16.7 points per game—seventh in the MIAA. Senior Tom Norton averages 12.6 points per game and leads the MIAA in free throw percentage (.920) and three-pointers per game (3.2).
"They really shoot it," said McCollum. "They play really free offensively, running people off all kind of random screens. They're very offensive-minded. Defensively, the whole year they've pressured, but they've showed zone recently."
Northwest lingers near the bottom of the MIAA in offensive production, but is tops in scoring defense and rebounding defense.
Fluctuating between starter and sixth-man, senior guard DeAngelo Hailey leads Northwest in scoring with 14.0 points per game.
Junior Dillon Starzl averages 13.5 points per game and leads the MIAA in field goal percentage (.622).
The Bearcats are 3-1 since he returned from an MCL sprain. Third leading scorer Alex Sullivan (10.4 ppg) has made 11 three's over his last two games and averaged 19.5 points.
Hailey, a Kankakee (Ill.) Junior College transfer, and Sullivan, an Akron transfer, will be recognized prior to the game as part of Senior Night festivities.
"I think it will be fun for them," said McCollum. "If we win, this will be their last time playing in Bearcat Arena. I think that will be a fun experience for them. They will miss being here."