EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The Northwest Missouri State Bearcats etched their names into Division-II basketball’s most exclusive club on Saturday afternoon in Evansville, Indiana.
With a 64-58 victory over Point Loma Nazarene, the Bearcats (38-0) have become the fifth team in Division-II history to complete a perfect season with a national championship.
The Bearcats accomplished the feat with an extremely young lineup, starting two freshman guards along with a sophomore, junior and senior. Coach Ben McCollum said that the consistency this team has shown throughout the season is what set them apart.
“Who does that?” McCollum said. “What are we 37, 38-0, something like that? Win a national title starting two freshmen and a sophomore. Probably got destroyed our first scrimmage and lost four starters from a team that probably could have won the national title. I am the beneficiary of a lot of good people in my program.”
The biggest challenge that Northwest faced in their quest for perfection was NABC National Player of the Year Daulton Hommes, but the Bearcats have their own First-Team All-American and Joey Witthus made his presence known early on with a pair of three pointers to take a 10-4 lead.
“Joey Buckets,” McCollum said. “That is what he does, get buckets.”
Hommes and the Sea Lions wouldn’t go away easily and Point Loma answered the Bearcats run with a steady dose of the 6-foot-8 wing. A three-point play for Hommes gave the Bearcats a three-point lead with 2:12 left in the half.
The Bearcats had the response with buckets from Witthus and Bernard before it appeared as through the Sea Lions would have the last possession of the half.
Ryan Welty, who had the opening assignment on Hommes, had other ideas and intercepted a pass with three seconds left and the tallest two Bearcats ran the fast break. Ryan Hawkins got the pass from Welty and fired a three at the buzzer for a 33-29 lead.
“Welty got a great steal, pushed it up the floor a little bit and I was just running wide,” Hawkins said. “Gave me a great pass and I got lucky.”
Throughout the game, McCollum was able to give Hommes different looks with Welty getting the assignment to begin and when he got two fouls, putting sixth-man Kirk Finley on him and also mixing in Bernard against him.
“The more looks the better,” McCollum said. “We have tough kids that are able to do that. We were trying to get him to hit tough shots, thats that is what we were trying to do. We didn’t want him to try and make anyone else better. If we could make sure they didn’t try to make each other better, which five assists, that was the objective. I thought they had too good of players to let everyone get going.”
The strategy worked as Hommes scared 26 points, but was unable to create for his teammates and had zero assists while the entire team had just five. The Bearcats had 13 assists as a team.
The Sea Lions retook the lead early in the second half with another three-point play from Hommes, but Bernard answered with a 5-0 personal run. The true freshman finished with 14 points.
The lead stayed hovering around four points for a majority of the second half, but Welty connected on his first three of the night with 7:35 left to stretch the lead to seven.
“I think a guy flew by me, one dribble and I shot it,” Welty said. “It felt good to actually see it go in.”
Witthus then followed with the play that will live in Bearcat lore for the rest of time. The senior collected a loose-ball near mid-court with one second on the shot clock and was forced to turn and fire a three. The ball banked off the glass swished through the net for a 10-point lead.
“Joey is Joey and Joey gets buckets,” Hawkins said. “That was a bucket and that was a big one for us.”
The play seemed to give the Bearcats all the energy they needed to finish off the Sea Lions.
“It felt the momentum totally swung our way at that point,” Welty said. “That is a huge shot by Joey."
Another Witthus three gave the Bearcats an 11-point lead. The forward was feared to be down for the season just two games ago when a nasty fall injured his hip and sidelined him for the Elite Eight game, but instead, he finished his career with 24 points, and four assists while playing 40 minutes in the national title game.
“It just shows Joey has a big heart for this team,” Hawkins said. “Playing through what he played through, playing 40 minutes today was huge for us.”
Witthus transferred to Northwest two years ago hoping to chase the feeling he felt on Saturday.
“This school has meant everything to me,” Witthus said. “It truly changed my life. … Winning this national championship is everything I ever wanted.”
The freshman guard duo of Bernard and Trevor Hudgins finished with 14 and 12 points respectively and Hudgins was named the Elite Eight’s Most Outstanding Player.
“To start with those two scrimmages, you’d be like, ‘Man, I don’t know, I don’t how our guards are going to be, I’m not sure,’” McCollum said. “I knew they were going to be fantastic eventually, but to do it that quickly. … They are national champions. They are 38-0. That is consistency at its finest for those two and obviously the whole team.”
Northwest has now won two of the last three national championships.
“Good, I guess, is the enemy of great, essentially,” McCollum said. “Before that ’17 team, we really made the preseason even more difficult than it was. Our objective was that we are done being good, we want to be great.”
The Bearcats are set to return four starters and seven of their top eight minutes-earners next season, but the future will decide itself later, for now the Bearcats celebrate their place in basketball immortality.