MARYVILLE, Mo. — Much of the excitement around the 2018-19 Bearcats men’s basketball team has centered around the youth on the roster and how freshman guards Diego Bernard and Trevor Hudgins have impacted the lineup. But sometimes it is nice to have that veteran presence to lean on.
That is what Ben McCollum’s team needed on Wednesday night in a 79-59 win over Emporia State and senior forward Joey Witthus answered the call for the second straight game. After a career-high 34 points against Central Oklahoma in Saturday’s nine-point win, Witthus nearly matched that total with 32 points and McCollum shared Witthus’ nickname.
“Eventually ‘Buckets’ got going,” McCollum said. “‘Joey Buckets’ got going and we were fortunate enough to come out with a win.”
With 10:29 left in the second half Emporia State’s Hassan Thomas threw down a two-handed dunk to draw the Hornets within 51-44 and silence the hot crowd at Bearcat Arena. It was then when ‘Buckets’ showed up.
“As a senior, whether it’s scoring, rebounding or getting a stop on defense, I try to be a leader out there,” Witthus said.
Witthus started with a layup as the Bearcats cleared the lane and spread the floor with four shooters and let the senior post up. With the Hudgins, Bernard, Witthus, Ryan Hawkins and Ryan Welty lineup, it allows the Bearcats to post up whoever has the mismatch.
“Everyone on the floor can shoot it, so I’m always looking for my teammates because I have a lot of trust in them to knock it down and they will knock it down,” Witthus said. “That opens up a lot of things there in our offense spacing-wise.”
From there on, Witthus had the answer for every move the Hornets tried to make. Cooper Glick hit a three, but Witthus came right back with a three, then Sawyer Glick scored inside, but a Witthus put the Bearcats back up 10.
“He just has a knack for scoring,” McCollum said. “He is not overly athletic. He just uses angles and he can hit shots. He can score in a variety of ways.”
Witthus made it 12 with another layup and after the Hornets made a free three, he connected on another three and then capped the run with a three where he was fouled and converted the four-point play.
“The nice thing about our our offense is that we have so many weapons on our team, in general,” Witthus said. “One night, one guy might go off and the next night, it is another guy.”
All-in-all, Witthus scored 16-straight points for Northwest and extended the lead to 15 points.
“It is good,” McCollum said. “I just like our team scoring — it doesn’t matter who does it. He could have 100 for all I care. He stepped up. He stepped up big.”
The Bearcat lead grew as large as 26 points after three-pointers by Bernard, Hudgins and Welty. A late Hornet run produced the final 20-point margin.
In addition to Witthus’ 32 points, Hawkins had 13 and Bernard had 12. It was just the second start for Bernard since being permanently added to the starting lineup — he had two previous starts when Witthus was injured. McCollum says the move was made to help Kirk Finley, who Bernard replaces in the lineup, as much as it was to help Bernard.
“I thought that when we were starting Kirk, he’d come out at the three-minute mark in the half or 17 essentially and we weren’t able to get him back in and keep him in rhythm,” McCollum said. “Kirk brings a lot to our team so I thought by starting Diego … then Kirk could come in and get rhythm and play for an extended period rather than just in, out, in, out — that is tough for kids..”
Hudgins joined them in double figures with 11 and Welty added nine. Freshman Xavier Rhodes had the only points off the bench with two and with Bernard starting, Rhodes becomes the bench’s primary playmaker.
“Xavier is good, he probably deserves more minutes,” McCollum said. “He is playing well. He just keeps a flow and that rhythm, kind of like Justin (Pitts) did, where he gets rid of the ball quick, everything is on time and he maintains that rhythm of the offense. I probably just have to play him more and I have trust him more.”
Northwest is one of two teams in the MIAA with a perfect conference record and they will meet the other, Washburn (11-2; 4-0 MIAA), on Saturday at 3:30 p.m., in Bearcat Arena.
“It is a battle for sure,” Witthus said. “Even going back to last year and the battles we had with them. They are always great, competitive team and we just have to recover and make sure we are ready to go.”
“The big thing that I think helps us and I think it is a good business model too: I’m a big believer in finding people’s — I’m about to spit some knowledge — finding people’s greatest strengths and getting them to play towards just those strengths. I think a lot of times when you bring kids in, you tell them, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t do this, don’t do that,’ to try to get them to do what you want them to do. Well, inevitably if I tell you don’t do this, you have 5 million other things to do so you are always worried about; 'Should I do this?’ ‘Is this something I shouldn’t do?’ instead of just saying this is what you do. … I think that is what creates a lot of unselfishness. Kids know who they are, what their strengths are and they play towards those strengths constantly. We try not to get them a lot of negative feedback on ‘Don’t do.’ It is more that if I am yelling at somebody, it is: ‘I need you to do this.’ I think that helps with that unselfish attitude. Through recruiting too, we have 11 guys. I’ve used six or seven scholarships. I have ten that I can use, but I want a specific person. That is just what I like, I should say we like. We like specific people that can handle it. This program is not, is not for everyone. It is not. Kirk Finley doesn’t play for three years, doesn’t play. Now he is a starter and now he is coming off the bench. Some kids play right away. Ryan Hawkins redshirted. It is a tough program to be in because you have to give and give and give. … That was a long answer.”
~ Ben McCollum on integrating his freshmen guards