EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The Bearcats have not faced much adversity throughout their undefeated run through the regular season, but they have had plenty in this week’s Elite Eight.
All-American Joey Witthus was injured in the second half of the Elite Eight win over Mercyhurst and freshman guard Diego Bernard missed the Mercyhurst game with a leg injury. Despite both being hobbled Thursday, it didn’t slow the Bearcats in their 76-53 win over St. Anselm in the Final Four in Evansville, Indiana.
“Our kids’ will to win and will to get to that national title game and have an opportunity to win that last game — I can’t say enough about them,” Northwest coach Ben McCollum said. “I wish it was 100 percent coaching, but I didn’t have a lot to do with it. It was my kids and how tough they are.
“I think our training staff probably deserves the MVP for that one, Nick Peters and Doc (Patrick) Harr.”
While the 23-point margin of victory was the largest margin of victory by any team in the Final Four since 2002, the game didn’t always look so promising for the Bearcats. Witthus started while Bernard began the game on the bench, but less than four minutes into the game, Witthus had to come out and didn’t return the rest of the half.
The Bearcats (37-0) were trailing 5-4 when Bernard checked in for Witthus, but the true freshman immediately gave the Bearcats a jolt with a basket to start a 4-0 run.
“He is a dog,” McCollum said. “That is who he is. He helps me a little bit because a lot of my other guys are a bit more like, you know, shooters. Not that shooters are bad, but they kind of relax, play and have some fun. DB is more my style where he is going to get in a foxhole and he is just one of those dudes that wants to fight a little bit and I kind of see myself that way.”
The Bearcats and Hawks went back and forth the rest of the half with neither team leading by more than four in the first 20 minutes. A layup by junior Kirk Finley put the Bearcats up 31-29 at halftime.
Freshman point guard Trevor Hudgins led the Bearcats with 15 first-half points.
“He has grown up a lot, hasn’t he?” McCollum said. “I mean, he is a freshman. He is a freshman. He has grown up a lot and he is a powerful driver. He has a really tight handle. He is very coachable — almost to a fault sometimes.”
Bernard got the team off to a hot start in the second half with the first six points for Northwest to build a 37-32 lead.
The second half was Witthus’ turn to provide the spark off the bench. After getting treatment at halftime, the senior entered the game with 16:09 to play and for the first time since the regional final last week, the Bearcats had their usual starters on the court together.
“In the second half, we controlled it again and we really got back to who we are,” McCollum said.
Hawkins scored a pair of baskets to increase the Northwest lead to 41-32 and then Witthus answered a St. Anselm score with two of his own for the first double-digit lead of the night. Witthus also had the next Bearcat bucket and the team was rolling with its star back engaged.
“Seeing his first bucket go in, we knew he was back and we just got our flow going again,” Hudgins said.
A pair of Witthus free throws and a Hudgins steal and finish pushed the lead to 14. A Hudgins three-pointer with 5:46 remaining made the lead 20 and capped a 10-0 Bearcat run.
Moments later, Witthus' three made him the all-time single-season leading scorer in Bearcat history passing Justin Pitts. Witthus finished with 13 points — all in the second half.
“We knew what was on the line and we just really tried to come out with energy,” Witthus said.
Bernard provided the exclamation point with a dunk with 4:30 to play and from there, Bearcat fans could begin making plans for the National Championship game.
“Yeah, he is is kind of athletic and quick,” Hawkins joked.
Hudgins finished with a game-high 27 points and added six steals along with four assists and just one turnover. Hawkins added 14 while Bernard and Witthus each had 13. Finley had six and Ryan Welty had three.
“As a team, our chemistry is the highest it has been all year,” Hudgins said. “As a team, we are just playing for each other right now. We have worked really hard this entire season for these moments right now.”
The Bearcats will play the winner of Point Loma/Southern Indiana and the game will be played on Saturday at 2 p.m. It will be broadcast on CBS.
A win would make the Bearcats the fifth team in Division-II history to complete an undefeated season with a national title.
“I know the national championship is really cool and we want to win it,” McCollum said. “But like I’ve said before the process to getting to work for something like that. To see these kids — like yesterday, some kids step up that needed to step up; today, some kids are playing through injury — those are the memories that you are going to have. … The memories are what are fun with each season.”