The top half of the MIAA better beware of the Northwest Missouri State women this week.
Despite barely missing out on a home playoff game Saturday, the Bearcats provided further evidence they are going to be a tough team to deal with in the MIAA Tournament regardless of the opposition.
Playing perhaps its best all-around offensive game in league play, Northwest closed the regular season with a 72-65 upset win over No. 25 Truman State on Senior Day at Bearcat Arena.
For the second straight game, Northwest topped 70 points and shot better than 50 percent, while going against the league's No. 4 scoring defense.
The Bearcats faced four-point deficits in each half, but responded with big runs each time that allowed them to lead for most of the game.
Northwest went in front for good with 12:57 left and opened up as much as a 12-point lead in the second half.
"I think that's our best win of the year," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Mark Kellogg. "We're playing pretty well right now. I think that's what's exciting for us. We've peaked. We've gotten so much better as the year has progressed."
This was Northwest's first win over a ranked team since the 2010-2011 Final Four season and sends them into the MIAA Tournament on a three-game win steak.
Picked to finish 14th in the MIAA Preseason Poll, the overachieving Bearcats (14-12, 8-10) earned the No. 9 seed and will face No. 8 seed Missouri Southern (14-12, 8-10) in an opening round game Tuesday night at 7 p.m. in Joplin.
Northwest would've been the No. 8 seed and hosted the game had Southern lost, but the Lions rallied late to beat Central Oklahoma 63-59 Saturday.
That hardly put a damper on Northwest's spirits after a win over Truman (19-7, 12-6) that cost the Bulldogs a first round bye. They are the fifth seed and host No. 12 Southwest Baptist Tuesday night.
"Tonight just proved if we come out and bring energy, I truly believe we can beat any team in this league," said senior forward Alexis Boeh who along with Ashley Thayer was recognized pre-game. "Our record doesn't show much, but now it's go-time. March is when it all counts."
Northwest took over the game in the second half after allowing a six-point halftime lead to erode into a 43-39 deficit.
Once down four, the Bearcats scored the next seven points and continued on an 18-3 run to lead by 11.
Truman State made only one field goal during that stretch, while the Bearcats scored on eight consecutive trips.
"They had 26 at the half and and they were up to 43 in a little over six minutes," said Kellogg. "I said we got to get some stops. They've scored more now than they had the whole game. We got stops and settled in offensively. That's all it was. We were taking some quick, bad shots or at least missing them. I thought some of the offensive rebounds hurt us during that stretch and we kind of got that cleaned up."
Page 2 of 3 - Truman quickly reduced the deficit to 57-52 on back-to-back three's from Courtney Strait and Allie Norton.
Coming out of a timeout, Truman left Maggie Marnin free for a wide open layup and freshman Tember Schechinger hit a three to boost Northwest's lead to 62-52.
After taking a timeout of their own, the Bulldogs scored the next two baskets to get within six with 4:25 left.
Back came Northwest with four straight from Schechinger and Marnin to make it 66-56. Schechinger gave Northwest its largest lead of 12 with 2:05 left on a press-breaking layup.
Normally a very good free throw shooting team, the Bearcats missed three consecutive one-and-one's that gave Truman a sliver of hope. The Bulldogs only capitalized enough to get it to 68-62 on a Strait three with 54.7 seconds left.
After Stevens split a pair at the line, Norton connected from deep to make it 69-65 with 40 seconds to go.
Schechinger hit a pair with 35.1 seconds left, and the Bulldogs missed a three, taking the steam out of their comeback attempt.
The Bearcats finished 25-49 (51.0 percent) from the field, made 7-11 (63.6 percent) three's and turned it over just 13 times.
Their 72 points were the most in a league game since scoring 74 against Southwest Baptist Jan. 22.
"Last couple of games we've been a lot better offensively," said Kellogg. "We've gotten away from some of that stuff in the middle of the year. Some of the opponents had a little bit do with that. We're pretty good when the game gets a little more free-flowing."
Northwest had five players score in double-figures and all five made at least half of their shots.
Schechinger led the way with 16 points. She was 5-7 from the field and 3-5 from three, connecting on each of her last five attempts.
Marnin scored 14 points in only 20 minutes and shot 6-7—her second straight game with only one miss.
Point guard Monique Stevens had an excellent all-around game, finishing with 12 points, eight assists and a team-high seven rebounds. Meridee Scott and Alexis Boeh each contributed 11 points off the bench.
Scott made all three of her three-point tries, while Boeh went 5-6 at the foul line.
"I think our team is very versatile," said Boeh. "I think we have a well-balanced team, and I feel like everybody can put the ball in the hole."
Northwest's zone prevented the Bulldogs from ever establishing a consistent offensive rhythm and caused numerous possessions that ended with forced shots at the end of the clock.
The Bulldogs finished 21-58 (36.2 percent) from the field, turned it over 17 times and only scored 14 second chance points off 18 offensive rebounds.
Page 3 of 3 - Over half of Truman's made field goals were three's. They went 11-27 (40.7 percent) from distance, slightly below their season average of 42 percent (tops in the MIAA).
Strait was 5-9 from downtown and led all scorers with 21 points. Norton, who hit 4-8 three's, was the only other Bulldog in double-figures with 15 points.
Becka McHenry, the team's leading scorer on the year, finished with only seven points on 3-12 shooting.
"I thought our pressure was pretty good tonight," said Kellogg. "I thought we took them out of a lot of stuff. They haven't played against a zone all year, and they weren't very comfortable."
Truman State started the game by making its first two shots to lead 4-0, then went the next 8:38 without scoring a single point.
The Bearcats got it tied at 4 with 17:41 left before enduring their own scoreless drought over six minutes.
Scott broke the 4-4 standstill with a three—the first of three straight by the Bearcats who scored on 13 of their final 19 first half possessions.
The Bearcats led over the final 11:21 of the half by as many as seven points.
Truman twice got within two, but both times the Bearcats scored the next four points.
A jumper by Alexis Boeh and two Ashleigh Nelson free throws gave Northwest a 32-26 halftime lead.
Annie Mathews scored the opening basket of the second half to put Northwest up eight, but the lead was soon gone. Three's by McHenry and Norton and two Strait free throws tied it 34.
The Bulldogs took their first lead since the opening minutes on a Strait three that made it 41-39.
A steal and two free throws from Nicole Gloor put Truman ahead by four.
Stevens ended Truman's spurt with a jumper and Schechinger put Northwest in front to stay with a three.
"That's a great team we just beat," said Kellogg. "They've had some really good wins this year. This is a program-builder."