EVANSVILLE, Ind. — When one player goes down, others must step up — but when two go down, that burden is even greater.
Without the Bearcats’ two top secondary ball-handlers, coach Ben McCollum put the ball in the hands of redshirt freshman Trevor Hudgins and his point guard answered the call in a 55-51 victory over Mercyhurst (26-8) in Wednesday’s Elite Eight matchup.
“He grew up today,” McCollum said. “He grew up. I haven’t seen him do it like that. He won the game. He controlled it and that is hard to do. The way he did it is very, very difficult to do — a lot more difficult than he made it look.”
The Bearcats (36-0) began the game without freshman guard Diego Bernard, who injured his leg in the regional final last week. McCollum was optimistic that Bernard could return in Thursday’s Final Four game against St. Anselm.
“He is close and I’m sure he would’ve gone,” McCollum said. “For me, I kind of treat these kids like they are my own. … Every day that he gets a rest, he will be that much better. If he plays tomorrow, he will be fantastic. I’m not worried about that.”
The game started off as a defensive battle with Northwest leading 10-9 with 12 and a half minutes played in the first half.
“When we went off the dribble, there was just no where to go because of their length,” Mercyhurst coach Gary Manchel said. “Defensively, they are good.”
The back-and-fourth nature of the game continued throughout the first half with Hudgins hitting a buzzer-beater to send the Bearcats into intermission with a 24-22 lead. Hudgins started the game 0-for-5 from the field, but found his rhythm late in the half with a three and the buzzer-beater in the final 90 seconds.
“We haven’t seen a point guard like him this year,” Manchel said.
A Ryan Hawkins three put the Bearcats in front 29-22 in the early going of the second half, but with the lead still at seven with 13:34 left, Witthus fell awkwardly on his hip and had to be helped to the sideline.
Suddenly the Bearcats were without two starters, including ome of the favorites to win National Player of the Year later this week. McCollum knew his bench would have to step up and they turned to Tyler Dougherty, Kirk Finley and Xavier Rhodes to help close the game.
“This was an emotional win, this was a good win for us,” McCollum said. “I said at the beginning of the season, at some point, eight, nine and 10 (players in the Bearcat rotation) are going to have to win a game for us. … I never would have thought in an Elite Eight game that seven, eight and nine were going to win us a game. It shows the kind of kids we have and how special they are.”
As much as he trusted his bench, McCollum put the ball in the hands of Hudgins, who has played all season as the player that replaced Bearcat legend Justin Pitts at point guard.
“I don’t think he has dominated a game for 10 minutes and won the game offensively like he did today (all season),” McCollum said. “He just had that look, like ‘We are going to win,’ and that is a look that is exciting as a coach.”
Despite a tremendous season where he earned First Team All-MIAA status, the freshman had his coming-out party on Wednesday.
“I got a mismatch and coach just told me to go at them,” Hudgins said.
Mercyhurst cut the lead to five points with 4:53 left in the game, but as they had been doing since the Witthus injury, the Bearcats let Hudgins go to work. His layup got the lead back to seven.
The Lakers kept coming at the Bearcats and a three-point play with 57 seconds left cut the margin to just three points, but Hudgins hit a pair of foul shots with 17 seconds left to essentially ice the game.
“I didn’t want to let my team down,” Hudgins said. “I just wanted to finish off the game strong.”
Hudgins finished the game with 20 points — 15 in the second half, while Hawkins had 13 and Witthus had 12.
Dougherty finished with five points and Rhodes added two and five rebounds.
“It is just awesome to see those guys succeed,” Hawkins said.
The Bearcats will play fifth-seeded St. Anselm at 6 p.m. on Thursday night in the Final Four.
“I think today was good for us,” Hawkins said. “Just to prove that we can rely on our defense rather than putting up points, but we have to scout, game plan and be ready for tomorrow. It’ll take another 40 minutes tomorrow.”