With Northwest Missouri State in the midst of a gritty second half comeback effort Saturday, a painful-looking ankle injury to top perimeter scorer DeAngelo Hailey threatened to derail their chances of finishing it off.
Instead, the Bearcats again showcased their extreme resiliency and refused to let that stand in their way of another season-extending win.
Minus Hailey for the final 4:49, the Bearcats rode Dillon Starzl back into the lead and continued getting every stop they needed to complete a rally from 12 down for a 73-66 win over top-seeded Fort Hays State in the semifinals of the MIAA Tournament.
Northwest's third victory in four days and first over Fort Hays State (21-9) in three tries this year advanced them into the finals where they'll face second-seeded Central Missouri with a guaranteed spot in the NCAA Tournament on the line.
The surprise tournament finals berth is Northwest's first since winning the event in 2007-2008 and follows a semifinal exit by last year's team that had far more man power to work with.
"In those types of situations, there's a lot of adversity," said Northwest Missouri State head men's basketball coach Ben McCollum. "It's going to go against you. We've been able to handle that all year. We've got a team that's been tested and has bent quite a bit and hasn't broke. That's the reason we were able to come out with a win."
After Hailey had to be helped off the floor, Northwest (21-9) scored eight straight points to go from four down to four up and closed the game on a 17-6 run.
Dominant throughout the second half, Starzl produced six of the first eight points and gave the Bearcats the lead for good on a powerful post score with 3:02 left.
He scored again after sealing off Fort Hays State's 7-0 center Rundell Mauge to put Northwest up 64-60.
Empty possessions by Fort Hays State followed both of Starzl's baskets and the Bearcats and put the game away by nailing 9-10 free throws in the last 1:44.
Bryston Williams made the last five, while Kyle Schlake and Matt Wallace combined on the first four.
"We didn't lose our intensity," said Starzl who scored 17 of his team-high 20 points in the second half. "We knew it was going to be a battle and we knew we didn't want this to be our last game. We kept fighting. We knew we needed to get stops on defense. Coach told us to get three stops in a row and we'd be alright. We kept getting stop after stop. We kept getting defensive rebounds, offensive rebounds that were huge. And Bryston stepped up to the line and made free throws late. That was good for us."
Page 2 of 4 - After struggling to get stops for the first first 30 minutes, Northwest held Fort Hays State to one field goal over the last 12:22—an uncontested putback by Mauge with 13 seconds left.
That ended a streak of 10 consecutive misses for the Tigers who were just 6-20 from the field in the second half.
"In a close game with three minutes to go, you want to be able to throw it somewhere and either score it or put pressure on the officials to call a foul," said Fort Hays State head coach Mark Johnson. "That's what Dillon Starzl can do for you. We got really good players. We just don't have anyone that can do that, too."
Along with getting pivotal stops, Northwest scored 44 second half points to finish with its highest total in a conference game since a 73-72 win over Northeastern State Jan. 31.
Free throw shooting was key in that.
The Bearcats went 21-23 at the foul line the second half and finished 25-29. They also went 8-16 from three and 20-39 from the field on shots that weren't blocked.
They are averaging 69.3 points per game in tournament play, a marked improvement from the regular season.
"We've made shots," said McCollum. "I would love to say that it was coaching. It's not coaching. We got good kids and they just keep believing. That's the thing with our offense. Kids just adapt. It's on them. That's whose making this run."
Starzl led the charge for Northwest offensively in the second half after a three-point first half in which he was rejected often by Mauge, a University of Pacific transfer.
Starzl made six of his nine second half shot attempts and grabbed four offensive rebounds while operating largely against Mauge again.
"I just kept being strong," said Starzl. "I knew they were ripping me. I just kept going up strong. I knew one of these times I was going to get it up past the 7-footer, so he wouldn't block my shot."
Northwest got other big offensive contributions with four players in double-figures. The remaining three were Hailey (13 points), Williams (11 points) and Alex Sullivan (11 points).
They combined to hit all eight Northwest three's. Hailey scored 11 of his points in the first six minutes.
Junior forward Kyle Schlake had his second straight impact game, finishing with seven points and six rebounds. He was 5-5 at the foul line.
Fort Hays State's Ben Conguista led all scorers with 21 points and made four three's. He started 7-7 from the field but missed his last five shots and went scoreless in the final 12 minutes.
Senior guard Lance Russell finished with 16 points, but also disappeared late. Point guard Craig Nicholson, the MIAA Freshman of the Year, went just 3-9 with eight points and bore the brunt of Hays's offensive woes down the stretch.
Page 3 of 4 - Before wilting in the second half, the Tigers shot 57.7 percent in the first half and held a 34-29 halftime lead.
Northwest held seven different leads, but all of three points or less.
Hailey came out on fire, nailing three straight three's in the first six minutes.
The Tigers more than kept pace and grabbed a 20-15 on a lob dunk to Russell.
Northwest regained the lead with 6:15 left and again a minute later on a Sullivan triple.
The Tigers netted the next eight points to go in front 34-28 with 2:08 left.
A free throw by Starzl with three seconds remaining created the halftime score.
Fort Hays State began to pull away from Northwest in the second half, extending to a pair of 12-point leads.
The last of those was 53-41 on a Conguista jumper.
This turned out to be the Tigers last field goal for the next 12:22, and a game that appeared to be getting away from Northwest turned interesting quickly.
The Bearcats narrowed the gap to seven on a Sullivan trey and an even bigger one from Williams got the crowd going again and made it 56-51.
Three free throws and a Starzl layup pulled Northwest even at 56 with 7:29 left.
Fort Hays went back in front 60-56 on four consecutive free throws in the one-and-one—two after Hailey went out.
Northwest answered right away with a short turnaround by Starzl.
The Tigers had two chances to extend their lead, but Russell and Nicholson missed jumpers.
Nicholson's was a pull-up in transition when the Tigers had a numbers advantage after two Northwest players crashed out of bounds.
The Bearcats missed again on their next trip, but Sullivan grabbed the offensive rebound, got fouled and made two free throws to tie it 60.
Starzl gave Northwest the lead 29 seconds later, and the Bearcats never let go.
"Fort Hays State is a really, really good team," said McCollum. "To be able to hold them down the stretch is huge. When were were down 12, most people thought 'well, it was a good season. It was a good fight.' That's what they think and my kids, they didn't. They thought, 'okay, we still got this one. We can do this and they believed. That's special."
Northwest Missouri State needs just one more win to complete an unlikely tournament title run, but will be without Hailey, Conner Crooker (facial injury) and DeShaun Cooper for today's game with Central Missouri who beat the Bearcats 60-50 in the regular season.
More undermanned than it's been all season, Northwest is embracing the challenge.
Page 4 of 4 - "The championship is will power," said McCollum. "It's mental toughness. I've got a mentally tough team and we're going to go at somebody."