One of three higher seeds to survive the play-in round, Northwest Missouri State's men return to Kansas City's historic Municipal Auditorium today with a different mindset and a greater sense of desperation than they had there the year before.
Whereas last year the Bearcats were safely in the Division II National Tournament with one win in Kansas City, they are now among a group of four-to-six teams that need to win the MIAA Tournament in order to extend their season beyond the weekend.
That requires Northwest (19-9) to win three games over the next four days on a neutral court against potentially three of the top four seeds in the MIAA.
Normally a very tall order, the lack of a single top 25 team in the league combined with Northwest's ability to keep games close and low-scoring give them a reasonable chance to pull it off.
"I think we can win it," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Ben McCollum. "I think we're probably one of the teams a lot of those guys don't want to see just because you're going to have to compete to beat us. It's not a thing of making or missing shots. You're going to have to beat us in all aspects of the game, so we're ready and hopefully we'll compete a little bit."
No. 1 in the league in scoring defense, Northwest took the first step toward an MIAA Tournament title with a 66-46 rout of 12th-seeded Missouri Western Monday night at Bearcat Arena.
The Bearcats made a season-high 15 three-pointers—eight by Alex Sullivan—and led from wire-to-wire.
Next up is a showdown with fourth-seeded Northeastern State today at 2:15 p.m. in the quarterfinals.
The winner moves on to the semifinals to face either top-seeded Fort Hays State or No. 9 seed Missouri Southern Saturday at noon.
The Riverhawks (19-7) hold the eighth and final tournament qualifying spot in the Central Region, and by McCollum's estimation, need two more wins to lock up a bid.
That makes this is a must-win game for both teams.
Northwest stormed back from a 20-point first half deficit to win the only regular season meeting against NSU 73-72 at Bearcat Arena Jan. 31.
Bearcat freshman guard Conner Crooker converted a three-point play with four seconds left after a pair of NSU missed free throws to give Northwest its most improbable win of the season.
Northwest played that night without top low post scorer/defender Dillon Starzl (13.0 ppg) who sat out four games with an MCL sprain.
He's back at full strength now and adds a different element to the rematch.
"We can go inside a little bit more," said McCollum. "I think the game will probably slow down quite a bit. That will help considerably. I think it will help guarding their big guy down there that's really good."
Page 2 of 3 - Also potentially working in Northwest's favor is their experience playing at Municipal Auditorium and NSU"s lack there-of.
The Bearcats have seven players that appeared in last year's two MIAA Tournament games, while NSU has never played in that venue before.
NSU is making its first-ever MIAA Tournament appearance, a year after leaving the Lonestar Conference.
"I think more the experience of playing in the conference tournament and kind of that big-time atmosphere is what could pose a threat to them versus us," said McCollum. "I think both teams will be jittery. Both teams will be a little bit sloppy early. I'm sure we'll try to figure it out from there."
Northeastern State won four of its last five regular season games and grabbed the fourth seed from Northwest on the final day of the regular season when the Bearcats lost to Truman State.
Statistically, the Riverhawks are one of the MIAA's most well-rounded teams.
They rank first in free throw percentage, second in three-point percentage and third in scoring defense, field goal percentage and rebounding defense.
The Riverhawks average above 72 points per game–eighth-best in the MIAA.
"Offensively, they really score it in a variety of ways," said McCollum. "They have two main scorers and a couple shooters. They try to beat you up with all their screening action. We just got to guard it and hope they miss a few shots."
NSU's two primary scorers—first team All-MIAA point guard Bryton Hobbs and second team All-MIAA forward Jermaine Bransford—form one of the best inside-out duos in the MIAA.
Hobbs averages 18.2 points per game—third-best in the league. Bransford scores 16 points per game—ninth-best in the MIAA—and leads the conference in rebounding with 9.7 per game.
The Bearcats limited Hobbs to just nine points on 2-9 shooting in the first meeting, while Bransford scored 17 in only 19 minutes of action due to foul trouble. Forward Landon DeMasters led NSU in scoring with 19 points, going 5-6 from the field and 9-10 at the foul line.
Northwest produced its second-highest point total of league play in the first meeting despite shooting just 39 percent, 2-12 from three and getting a combined three points from leading scorer DeAngelo Hailey (14.2 ppg) and Sullivan (11.0 ppg).
The Bearcats made up for a sub-par shooting night and minimal production from their two seniors by turning it over only eight times, making 29-32 (90.6 percent) free throws and season-best scoring games from Crooker (24 points), sophomore forward Grant Cozad (19 points) and junior guard Bryston Williams (17 points).
Those three went a combined 23-26 at the foul line. It was Crooker's first double-figure game of his career and one of only three this season for Williams.
Page 3 of 3 - "There's a few things going into the game we saw that we were able to do," said McCollum. "Obviously, we'll try to do some more of that."