Northwest Missouri State senior Jaran Richman dribbles out the clock against Flager on March 25 in the Final Four in Evansville, Indiana.

MARYVILLE, Mo. — The Northwest Missouri State Bearcats celebrated the return of senior Ryan Hawkins next season as he is taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA, but the Bearcats did send two leaders out in championship style.

“Me and Daric (Laing) were seniors and we don’t play very much, but we love the team and would do anything to help them win,” Jaran Richman said. “Whether that is going in and playing 30 minutes or doing what we did and sitting on the bench cheering for guys and making sure those younger (players) are prepared for the game. That is what we needed to do and we embraced that role.”

When Laing first stepped on Northwest’s campus as a freshman in 2016, it was clear to the Chariton, Iowa, native that coach Ben McCollum had the Bearcats headed in the right direction, but that hadn’t been proven yet on the biggest stage.

“They never settle,” Laing said of the coaches. “Every day and every year, they are finding little ways to motivate us. From a player’s standpoint, you appreciate coaches that are putting in that much work to help your team.”

It was proven in Laing’s first year as a Bearcat as he witnessed Justin Pitts lead the team to its first ever national championship.

Laing’s next season ended in heartbreak as Pitts was injured and the Bearcat quest to repeat was ended with an upset loss in the regional.

The next season saw Northwest welcome a whole new lineup in as the team replaced four starters, but also added freshmen Trevor Hudgins and Diego Bernard to the starting lineup.

“No one cares about individual success,” Laing said of the team’s ability to have the next-man-up mind set. “That is just kind of a result that happens when guys play well. Each of the years we’ve had guys that are all about winning.”

The new pieces fit in quickly and Northwest went on a historic run with a 38-0 season and the school’s second national title.

The next season, the team replaced standout Joey Witthus, but still were heavy favorites to repeat as champions until COVID-19 caused the national tournament to be cancelled. One of the new faces on that team though was Richman.

The Hamilton, Missouri, product played his first two seasons at North Central Missouri College. With goals of becoming a coach after graduation, Richman decided to forgo furthering his playing career and come to Northwest as a manager and learn under McCollum.

McCollum had other ideas though and wanted Richman to join the team as a player.

“Really, I wanted to come over here and be a manager so I applied for that,” Richman said. “I was fortunate enough to actually be accepted and I was all in on being a manager until in early August, Coach McCollum asked me if I’d like to walk on.

“Of course, I jumped at that opportunity because I planned on being a coach. To learn under him was really a dream come true. I knew it was going to be tough work, but I knew it was going to be worth it. Obviously, it has paid off.”

Richman jumped at the opportunity, but knew what his role would be and embraced it.

“(McCollum) told me up front that I wasn’t going to ever touch the floor,” Richman said with a laugh. “That is one thing I really love about him is that he is so up front and honest with me in everything he said. He said it is going to be tough work, it is not going to be a walk in the park and you are not going to get on the floor. He was just so open about it and I would have done anything for him at that point.”

With COVID-19 still hanging over the season — threatening to end it at any time — the Bearcats made their title defense this season.

“It was incredible,” Laing said. “Obviously, it was a tough year with COVID and everything, but I felt like we embraced it and just got better everyday. So it was really special at the end.”

Laing saw his minutes cut because of a talented freshmen class that McCollum brought in, but the senior remained a constant positive force and was a leader on the Bearcat bench.

“We take a lot of pride in just always being ready,” Laing said.

Laing finishes his career with three national championships.

“The winning was always a result of caring about each other and making each other better,” Laing said. “When you are winning and you have that kind of attitude, it made this experience unlike anything I could have imagined playing college basketball.”

With his coaching goals still in front of him, Richman attacked each game’s scouting report and helped his younger teammates with it.

“That is just me playing to my strengths,” Richman said. “I’m going to be a better coach that I am a player. I’m not overly athletic. I’m 6-foot-2 and pretty slow compared to a lot of these guys. That is not going to cut it. So in order to help the team win, I needed to learn the scout and maybe help some of the freshmen and younger guys (get) ready. ... Just anyway I could help the team, I was willing to do it.”

Now with the program’s third national championship behind them, Laing and Richman each are looking forward to what is next for them.

Laing is finishing up his Master’s of Business Administration this summer and is planning to either go to law school or enter the business world after that.

Richman, who won the NCAA’s prestigious Elite 90 Award as a 4.0 student, is going to do his student teaching at Maryville High School and Eugene Field Elementary School. He is also hoping to begin his coaching career, perhaps as a graduate assistant at Northwest.

“Just to be able to say that I was a part of it,” Richman said. “I look back at where I was a couple years ago, and it is really unbelievable.

“I would have been fine as a manager. Shoot, I just wanted the opportunity to learn under the coaching staff and be a part of it.”