A week ago, Northwest Missouri State experienced a four-hour bus ride home that had a very unfamiliar aura in the 2016-17 season: The Bearcats had to think about a loss.
For nearly all of the regular-season, Northwest Missouri’s journey has been smooth. The Bearcats clinched the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association regular-season title with three games remaining.
Northwest shattered an 86-year-old conference record for consecutive regular-season victories. The old mark was 19 straight set in 1931. Northwest won 28 straight. They were winning most conference games this season by double-digits. Only one of their 18 conference wins were by single digits.
And then came an 88-71 loss at Missouri Southern on Feb. 18.
“It was a pretty somber bus ride just because of the kind of players we have here,” said senior forward D’Vante Mosby. “We are very goal oriented and fully committed to what we want to do with our goals.”
How would the Bearcats respond in their final two regular-season games?
“They didn’t understand how to take the loss because they hadn’t lost,” said Northwest coach Ben McCollum. “They bounced back and had a great practice on Monday and Tuesday.”
The Bearcats turned those good practices into solid performances Thursday and Saturday, winning by 16 and 29 points, respectively, to conclude the regular season 26-1 overall and 18-1 in the MIAA.
“Just to get our confidence was huge,” said senior Zach Schneider about the last two games. “A couple of guys were down just mentally playing in a game like that. We hadn’t experienced it this year. It was big to get back on track right away and not let it snowball.”
Over the last six years, Northwest has experienced quite a bit of success. The last three seasons, they have reached the Central Region championship game, falling one win away from the Elite Eight.
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After a two-point loss to Augustana University last year in the regional championship game, the Bearcats were fairly confident they were going to have a good season this year. Augustana went on to win the national title. Northwest Missouri lost only one player off of last year’s team.
But the Bearcats never thought it would go through the regular season with only one loss.“It is unbelievable,” said junior point guard Justin Pitts. “Basketball is so hard and to lose just one game or go undefeated is unbelievable. It has been a special season. We will try to continue to keep on the run. We all bought into what coach Mac was saying and it is paying off.”
The focus now shifts to the MIAA tournament. Northwest Missouri will play its quarterfinal game Thursday at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri. The championship game is Sunday afternoon. The Bearcats won the conference tournament last year.
“This time of the year is great,” Schneider said. “Kansas City is our most fun weekend of the year. Winning it last year was great. We are looking forward to going down there.
“We haven’t experienced a regional at home yet, so I can’t tell you about that. But hopefully, that will be awesome, too.”
This is the week that top teams do a little more scoreboard watching. The top eight teams in each of the eight regions advance to the NCAA Division II tournament. Teams are announced March 5 in the evening after all the conference tournaments are over. Selection for the women’s tournament will be 10 p.m. ET and will be streamed on NCAA.com. The men’s selection will follow at 10:30 p.m. ET.
“We check scores and watch other games,” Mosby said. “But it comes down to a process, and we have been preaching that the whole year. We just got to come into practice every single day and build on things we need to get better at to ultimately win a national championship.”
Fairmont State also lost only one regular-season gameAn argument could be made that Fairmont State, after a 95-80 victory over Shepherd on Saturday, had the most impressive regular season in Division II. The Fighting Falcons finished the regular season 27-1 and 21-1 in the Mountain East Conference.
Fairmont’s only loss was 88-81 at No. 3 West Liberty on Feb. 4.
The Fighting Falcons are accomplishing a few firsts in their fantastic regular season. One of them was capturing the first regular-season title by any sport at the school since Fairmont joined the MEC in 2013.
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Despite just one loss and being ranked No. 1 in the NABC top 25, Fairmont State has a little more pressure to win its conference tournament than Northwest Missouri. Both teams started last week ranked first in their respective region.
Northwest has four fewer losses than Southwest Minnesota State in the Central Region. In the Atlantic Region, which might be the toughest region, Indiana (Pa.) is second and has two losses. West Liberty, which also has two losses, is third.
The No. 1 seed in the Atlantic Region could come down to who wins its conference tournament. The importance of gaining the No. 1 seed is the opportunity to host the regional tournament.
Indiana (Pa.) one of the hottest teams in Division II
Indiana (Pa.) concluded its regular season Saturday with a 77-72 victory at California (Pa.). It was the 17th straight victory for the Crimson Hawks. IUP is 26-2 overall and 21-1 in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
The 26 wins matched the PSAC record for most regular-season wins. California (Pa.) did it in the 1991-92 season. It was the third time IUP went undefeated in road games, going 11-0.
Next for IUP is the PSAC tournament, which runs March 1-5.