With their season on the line, Northwest Missouri State's men threatened to lose another game they led by double-digits in the second half and waste one of their best offensive performances of the season.
This time, disaster was averted and the Bearcats lived to play another day.
After giving up a 14-point second half lead and briefly trailing, fifth-seeded Northwest Missouri State used a combination of clutch free throw shooting and timely defensive stands to nail down a 69-65 win over fourth-seeded Northeastern State Thursday in the quarterfinals of the MIAA Tournament at Municipal Auditorium.
Five days removed from losing a 16-point second half lead against Truman State to end the regular season, the Bearcats (20-9) won their second straight tournament game and advanced to play top-seeded Fort Hays State in the semifinals Saturday at noon.
This was their second win over Northeastern State (19-8), the highest ranked MIAA team in the Central Region at No. 5.
"I thought we came in real focused," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Ben McCollum. "We might have worn down for a stretch. They made a little run at us, but I thought we stayed positive, maintained our poise and we were able to come away with a win."
Northwest scored the game's final five points, all at the foul line, and held Northeastern State scoreless over the last 3:15.
NSU missed its final seven shots from the field, including two mid-range jumpers by all-conference forward Jermaine Bransford that would've either tied it or given the Riverhawks the lead.
Landon DeMasters started the string of misses with a three that spun out with NSU down just a point.
"We had two out of three possessions where we got it to an all-conference player, got a shot and missed the shots," said NSU head coach Larry Gipson.
The Riverhawks last point came on a free throw by Bransford that gave NSU a 65-64 lead.
Northwest took it back for good on a pair of free throws by DeAngelo Hailey 11 seconds later.
After crashing in for an offensive rebound, Hailey got fouled again and split a pair with 1:16 left that put Northwest up 67-65.
Following Bransford's second clanked jumper, offensive star Dillon Starzl got back to the line and extended Northwest's lead to 69-65 by hitting both attempts with 30.6 seconds to go.
With the help of an inbounds violation by Tyler Funk, NSU got off five three-pointers over the remaining time. None came close to going in and one was blocked by Funk out of bounds on a pretty risky play up four.
The final miss by NSU's Bryton Hobbs in final seconds ensured Northwest of victory.
Page 2 of 3 - "You wear down quite a bit trying to make that run back at a team when you're down 14," said McCollum. "I kind of knew they would make a run. I was hoping they didn't make that big of a run. Our kids stayed positive, stayed with it and stayed with the next play. That's our philosophy and we came out with a win."
A team known for its hard-nosed defense, Northwest won in large part because it was more efficient offensively than NSU—one of the better offensive teams in the league.
The Bearcats shot 23-44 (52.2 percent) and made only one less field goal with 14 fewer shot attempts. Northwest also took 10 less three's but made the same amount as NSU, finishing 5-10.
And just like the previous matchup, Northwest handily won the free throw battle, taking 10 more and making six more. The Bearcats scored 10 of their last 12 points at the foul line, giving them just enough ammunition to hold on with only one made field goal over the final 12 minutes.
Northwest was 12-14 at the line in the second half and 18-26 overall.
In two games with NSU, the Bearcats went 47-58.
"We put them on the line entirely too much," said Gipson. "It's foolish basketball to think you can just go down and foul somebody and come out ahead. That's not the way it works. I don't have any real complaints with the officiating. I think there were a number of times where we clearly fouled them."
Running high pick-and-rolls almost non-stop, Northwest just missed reaching 70 points for first the time since a 73-72 win over NSU at Bearcat Arena Jan. 31.
The Bearcats scored 39 points in the first half and shot a mind-blowing 71 percent, yet needed a buzzer-beating three from Hailey just to lead at the half.
It wasn't until the opening minutes of the second half that the Bearcats began to stretch it out.
Starzl powered Northwest's offense, scoring a career-high 25 points on 9-12 shooting.
He made his first nine shots, and included in those were a couple of difficult fade-aways.
NSU simply could not guard him and eventually had to start sending double teams.
"I knew they were going to play straight behind in the post," said Starzl who sat out the first game against NSU with an MCL sprain. "I knew that was a focus to go inside and they played pretty much behind the whole game until late. They started to double, so I caught, got a good rhythm going early and kept it going throughout the whole game."
Starzl was joined in double-figures by freshman guard Conner Crooker (13 points) and Hailey (12 points). The three combined to go 16-22 at the foul line.
Page 3 of 3 - Junior forward Kyle Schlake had one of his most productive games of the season, finishing with eight points and 10 rebounds. Alex Sulivan added six points on a pair of three's coming off another school-record tying three-point performance against Missouri Western.
Funk and Matt Wallace only hit one basket each, but both came at critical moments in the second half. Hobbs led NSU with 23 points on 9-18 shooting.
Also in double-figures for NSU were Ethan Anderson (15 points), DeMasters (13 points) and Bransford (10 points).
Bransford made his first three shots, but spent the final 14 minutes of the half on the bench in foul trouble caused by Starzl. He had only one second half field goal.
The Riverhawks held various leads in the first half, but none by more than three points.
Hailey's three to close the first half and seven straight by the Bearcats to open the second half gave them a 46-36 lead.
Northwest's lead reached 14 points on a floater by Crooker with 12 minutes left.
That would be Northwest's last field goal for over five minutes, a drought that allowed NSU an avenue back in the game.
The Riverhawks went on a 19-5 run and tied it at 62 on a steal and score by Hobbs with 4:40 left.
It was tied once more at 64 before the Riverhawks gained a one point lead on Bransford's split trip at the line.
Northwest stopped the bleeding right there and extended its season to Saturday, needing only two more wins to claim the tournament title.
Despite a two-game series sweep of NSU, who as of Thursday was firmly in the national tournament, McCollum still believes it's going to take winning the MIAA Tournament for the Bearcats to get in.
"We have to win it," said McCollum at the end of a rant about the randomness of the tournament selection process. "I know that for a fact."
Northwest lost both meetings against Fort Hays State during the regular season, but the two games were decided by a total of five points.