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Northwest Missouri State guard Diego Bernard finishes a layup after a steal on Tuesday at Bearcat Arena against Truman State. 

MARYVILLE, Mo. — The Bearcats returned to Bearcat Arena for the first time this season, and back in their friendly confines, they returned to their dominant form.

“I thought we shared the ball,” Northwest coach Ben McCollum said. “I thought that we played with just completely ego-less basketball.”

The catalyst for that return wore his familiar No. 1 and played like the Diego Bernard that Bearcat fans and his coach have been accustomed to over the years — even if he did pass up a fast break dunk to instead take the simpler layup in the first half.

“Mac (McCollum), he and (assistant coach Xavier Kurth) challenged me to stay aggressive,” Benard said.

Bernard scored a career-high 25 points, but also filled the stat-sheet in typical Bernard fashion. With 12 rebounds, four steals, a couple assists and a blocked shot, the Lafayette graduate responded to McCollum’s challenge and led the Bearcat to a 86-76 win over the No. 2 team in the country, Truman State.

“He was Diego again,” McCollum said.

“The hardest part for people who have a lot of success — especially a guy who is like a local hero around here and rightfully so. He should be. Great kid and a fantastic athlete, but over time if you aren’t exactly what people want you to be, then it can add some pressure. I think (he) just alleviated some of the pressure from himself to be perfect all the time. Just be you and then he just plays like this. He is just him.”

In a rare instance where Northwest, the No. 3 team in the country, was an underdog according to the national poll, the Bearcats came out with a point to prove early and did it with its 3-guard lineup to begin the game.

That meant freshman Isaiah Jackson got his first start of his career and the wiry 6-foot-2 guard made his presence felt early with a very similar style to Bernard. Jackson is one of McCollum’s most-trusted defenders and with him taking the primary ball-handler, it allowed Bernard some more freedom to fly around.

“(Jackson) on-ball, he is a pest, man,” Bernard said. “I like playing with him. Him and Trev (Hudgins), us three together, I feel like we can guard any guards in the country.”

Jackson and Bernard created second-chance points on the first two possessions of the night with each scoring on a putback and combining for three offensive rebounds.

The tone was set from there and seeing his teammates crashing made reigning National Player of the Year Trevor Hudgins a little jealous.

“We just have really good ball-getters as guards — excluding me,” Hudgins said, who as the point guard had to get back on defense. “I can’t go get a board, but it’s okay. I ask Mac all the time if I can o-board. He says no, but it’s alright.”

The game was back and forth throughout much of the first half, but Hudgins hit a 3-pointer with 56 seconds on the clock to put the Bearcats up four and they maintained that margin into half at 43-39.

A Bernard bucket had Northwest’s lead to eight just three minutes into the second half.

Truman State showed the fight that made them an Elite Eight team last season and whittled the lead back to one with 14 minutes left.

That was as close as the Bulldogs got as Luke Waters had a 3-point play on the next possession and Bernard hit a 3-point on the next trip to push it back to seven.

With just under 11 minutes left the Bearcats got the spark they’d been looking for from the bench. With a 5-point lead, Hudgins fed freshman Byron Alexander for a layup.

On the other end, Alexander swatted a layup attempt by Truman State star Cade McKnight, collected the ball and fed Bernard for a layup.

“It was really big,” Hudgins said. “Just him getting back to his normal self — just cutting at the right times, playing defense like we know he can. Just being B. Just being Byron.”

The lead was at five when the National Player of the Year put it away. Beginning with a jumper at the 5:35 mark, Hudgins scored nine-straight Northwest points — capped with a step-back 3-pointer at the 2:37 mark for an 11-point lead.

During the second half, every shot the Bearcats made was met with thunderous applause from behind the home basket as the Northwest football team spent the evening cheering on their fellow student-athletes. The applause climaxed when Hudgins shook a defender and hit a 1-legged fadeaway jumper.

“When they come, it just brings more excitement to the game,” Bernard said.

Waters put in a layup, and Bernard and Hudgins combined to go 6-for-6 from the foul line in the final minute to seal the 10-point win.

Bernard and Hudgins combined for 49 points as Hudgins added 24 to Bernard’s 25.

“Today, I felt like everybody got a glimpse of what we could be,” Bernard said.

While the guards were dominant, forwards Wes Dreamer and Waters were each in double figures as well with Dreamer dropping 16 and Waters adding 13. The rotation was short with Jackson and Alexander as the only other Bearcats to play more than eight minutes.

“Byron was Byron again today,” McCollum said. “We got to get Daniel (Abreu) and Luke Moustakas going and then I think we are going to be okay.”

Northwest caps the pre-MIAA season on Friday when they host Briar Cliff at 2 p.m.

“We gotta keep being who we are,” McCollum said.

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