MARYVILLE, Mo. — Northwest Missouri State knows as well as any team in NCAA Division II just how hard it is to take that final step to the Elite Eight.
In three previous seasons, Northwest made it to the Central Region championship game before losing. Their opponent in the third round this year, Southwest Minnesota State, gave everything it had to make it four years in a row.
“It is one thing to get here one time and quite another to make it four times,” said Southwest Minnesota coach Brad Bigler said.
Because of gritty defense played by Bigler’s team, shots weren’t falling for Northwest. The Bearcats went 1-for-15 on three-pointers. Northwest needed to scratch and claw to eke out a 55-52 victory Tuesday evening at Bearcat Arena.
“This means a lot because after last year’s loss, a lot of us stayed most of the summer and worked hard,” said Northwest junior guard Justin Pitts, who finished with 25 points. “We worked hard all preseason. This feels good. We have been so close the last three years. It feels special to finally get to the Elite Eight.”
Northwest, 32-1, is making its first trip to the Elite Eight since 2004 and third in school history. Southwest Minnesota finished the season 28-6.
“You definitely want to compliment Northwest Missouri State,” Bigler said. “It was a heck of a game, back and forth. Both teams gave everything they had. Justin Pitts made a couple of plays in the end to give them that edge. You have to tip your hat to him.
“I am proud of our guys. They showed a lot of resiliency out there. I think that toughness in our team is because of these two guys here [seniors Joey Bartlett and Mitch Weg].”
Although Southwest Minnesota never led in the second half, the Mustangs kept a sold-out crowd of 2,315 on the edge of their seats.
“First off, congratulations to Southwest Minnesota and the year that they had,” Northwest coach Ben McCollum said. “I am good friends with Coach Bigler. He is as classy a guy as there is. We talk quite often. He texted me before the game. He is a special person and they have a special group of guys.
“Tonight for us was very special because we have been here for our fourth straight year. You feel like, 'Man, let's close this thing out and get this thing done.' We didn’t hit shots tonight, but we made enough plays and some big rebounds and key finishes. It was a special night. We have a special group. I am glad they were rewarded with a regional championship.”
Northwest appeared to be in control when it built a 39-31 lead midway through the second half. After a timeout, the Mustangs fought back. They closed to 41-37 on consecutive baskets by Weg.
From that point on, every possession became critical. One of the biggest came with just under four minutes remaining and Northwest leading 45-42. Twice the Bearcats missed a shot and twice senior D’Vante Mosby grabbed a rebound. On the third attempt, Mosby scored, making it 47-42 with 2:40 left.
“It is backbreaking for the opponent just because you work so hard to get a stop,” McCollum said. “If [Mosby] doesn’t get the ball, it is like he is going to get shot. He is so hungry for the ball. D’Vante is one of the most unselfish players I have coached.”
Southwest Minnesota answered on three-pointer by sophomore Taylor Schafer, who heated up down the stretch. A 15-footer by Schafer closed the gap to one at 48-47.
“When [Schafer] hit that first one, he had that look in his eyes,” Bigler said. “We wanted to make sure we gave him an opportunity to make some more plays. Thankfully, he stepped up and did that.”
Pitts always seemed to have an answer. He put the Bearcats back up three on a 10-foot floater. With 30 seconds left, Pitts gave Northwest a 52-48 lead with a basket.
Southwest Minnesota wasted little time scoring when sophomore point guard Ryan Bruggeman drove in for a layup for his 20th point of the game, making it 52-50.
“It was a very competitive game,” Bartlett said. “Playing in an environment like this is fun for both teams. We knew it was going to come down to the last possession. We liked our chances. We thought we matched up well with them.
“We knew we were going to have to battle on every possession, and they were able to make some plays down the stretch.”
The Mustangs fouled Pitts with 12.3 seconds left. Pitts swished both free throws and put the game away.
“When the game comes down to the end, he is allowed to be Justin,” McCollum said. “The thing with him is he is humble enough to know he is not able to be Justin without the other guys and the guys allow him to do that.”
Despite struggling on offense throughout the first half, Northwest went into halftime with a 24-19.
Each team made just nine field goals in the first half. Northwest really struggled from the outside, making only one of 11 three-point attempts.
Early on, it was obvious both teams were tight. Shots simply weren’t falling. Because of that, the game stayed close. There game had four ties in the first 6 minutes and five lead changes in the first 10 minutes.
Northwest took its third lead of the half at 15-13 on a basket by Pitts and maintained a slim advantage the rest of the half.
The only player on the court who had consistent success on offense was Bruggeman, who went 5-of-9 from the field for 11 points. Pitts also scored 11, but he needed 13 shots to reach that point.