OWENSBORO, Ky. - In western corner of Kentucky, on a neutral court, the Northwest Missouri State men's basketball team showed it remains the king of Division II basketball.
The Bearcats, the defending national champions and No. 1-ranked team in the NABC coaches top 25, handed No. 4 Lincoln Memorial its first loss of the season Tuesday evening at Kentucky Wesleyan's Owensboro Sportcenter.
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An impressive display of offense and defense in the first eight minutes of the second half broke open a close game and propelled Northwest to a 70-56 victory. The Bearcats go into the Christmas break with an 11-0 record. Lincoln Memorial dropped to 11-1.
"Like I said before the game, this was really going to test us," said Northwest senior Chris-Ebou Ndow, who finished with 24 points and 15 rebounds. "It was the biggest test we have had so far. Defensively, we showed we can play with anybody. We can defensively get after anybody. That is a good feeling to have going into Christmas."
The nonconference game was a rematch of last year's national semifinals that Northwest won 79-67.
The way the first half ended, it definitely looked like Tuesday's game was going to be much closer.
Ndow had another idea. He wasted little time helping Northwest increase a four-point halftime lead. He opened the second half with a 3-pointer, increasing the Bearcats lead to 35-28.
"We knew we ended the first half really bad and that is not what we wanted to do against a team like that," Ndow said. "We knew they could get on a run at any time. The fact we let them get on a run at the end of the first was not good.
"Coming out in the second half, we knew we had to turn it up. It was good for me to make some threes and get us going."
After Lincoln Memorial scored, the Bearcats went on an impressive 12-0 run that started with a 3-pointer from senior Justin Pitts that bounced high off the rim, hit the backboard and fell through.
MBB: That's a @NWbball victory over LMU 70-56! #oabaab pic.twitter.com/RNolso140k— Northwest Athletics (@bearcatsports) December 20, 2017
Some luck was definitely on the Bearcats' side. It was fitting they were wearing their all green jerseys.
"For us, other than Ryan Hawkins bank shot and that shot by Pitts, I think we weren't too lucky because the rims were tight," Ndow said.
Ndow followed Pitts' trey with another 3-pointer. Senior Brett Dougherty did a nice fake in the paint and banked in a layup for two more points.
"I just tried to be aggressive," said Dougherty, who finished with 14 points on seven of 14 shooting. "They weren't doubling me. We have shooters around me so I have to take advantage of it. That was what I tried to do."
Ndow followed with a basket in the paint that caused the Railsplitters to call timeout. The run ended with two free throws by Ndow that made it 47-30 with 15 minutes left.
Lincoln Memorial stopped the run with a basket and then the Bearcats revved it back up, scoring 12 straight points, making it 59-32. The banked-in 3-pointer by Hawkins completed the 27-4 run to start the second half.
"I thought in the first half we had a chance to really put our foot on their throats and pull away," Northwest coach Ben McCollum said. "I thought we made some mistakes with some busted coverage and some turnovers and they made a run on us.
"In the second half, we buckled down, especially coming out of the gate. Chris hit some big shots and had 15 rebounds. He is a big-game player. You saw that tonight."
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Everything went well for Northwest. Pitts didn't shoot the ball well, but his five assists put him No. 1 on the school's career assist list with 494. The previous record was 492 by Kelvin Parker.
One hot stretch by Northwest in the first half gave the Bearcats a 13-point lead and enough of a cushion to take a 32-28 lead into halftime.
Northwest shot a cool 38 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes but created enough turnovers to lead most of the half.
Lincoln Memorial took its first lead at 12-11 on two free throws by senior Dorian Pinson. The Railsplitters other lead was 14-13 on a massive dunk by senior Emanuel Terry.
"It is really tough to stop their runs," Ndow said. "They are a high-scoring team and can get hot anytime. When they got that dunk and got hyped, we knew they could have made a big run. We had to stop the bleeding as soon as possible."
The dunk didn't rattle the Bearcats. They regained the lead for good for on two free throws by Ndow.
Congratulations to Justin Pitts, now the @NWbball all time career assist leader! #oabaab pic.twitter.com/6Zxhbkx7Oc— Northwest Athletics (@bearcatsports) December 20, 2017
Those two free throws sparked a 10-0 run that gave Northwest a 23-14 lead with 5:09 remaining in the first half. Northwest junior Joey Witthus scored a couple of baskets during the run.
"It makes it really good for us when Joey hits baskets in the post and that gives you Brett and Joey," McCollum said. "It gives us a more multi-facet offense."
After Lincoln Memorial scored, Northwest answered with a 3-pointer from Witthus and another 3-pointer from Ndow, making it 29-16.
Trailing by 13, the Railsplitters got hot behind the shooting of sophomore Cornelius Taylor. He drilled two straight long 3-pointers followed by a two-point field goal to pull Lincoln Memorial to within five at 29-24.
Lincoln Memorial actually shot much better than the Bearcats, hitting 12 of 21 shots for 57 percent. But the Railsplitters attempted 11 fewer shots.
"This win was huge," Dougherty said. "A few years ago, we kind of went to Christmas too early, which is easy to do if you start looking ahead to it. A big game like this right before Christmas was nice. Defensively, we believe we can bring a lot to the table. I think we showed that tonight."