It's official. Missouri Southern State is the biggest thorn in Northwest Missouri State's side. They are also seemingly the only thorn in the reigning champs side.
Last season, the Bearcats rolled into the Missouri Southern's Joplin, Mo. home a perfect 24-0 and the No. 1 team in Division II basketball. The Lions pulled off the stunning 88-71 upset, handing the Bearcats their only loss in a dominating, championship season. Thursday evening, in Joplin once again, the Lions halted the Bearcats new 23-game winning streak, upsetting the then-12-0, No. 1 ranked team 83-77.
"We got off to rough start," head coach Jeff Boschee told NCAA.com. "They punched us in the mouth pretty good, we were kind of shell shocked offensively. But we stuck to the game plan and we went to our bench, which gave us some energy and ignited us offensively. We went on a roll for a little bit and closed that gap by half time."
#1 goes down! @MSSUMensBball defeats No. 1 @bearcatsports 83-77 in #miaamb action. 27 points for CJ Carr, 18 for Elyjah Clark. Lions have the only two losses for Northwest Missouri in the last 49 games. #LeggettWasLoud #ThePride pic.twitter.com/aXq9WASfg4— MSSU Athletics (@mososports) January 5, 2018
MSSU was down by as many as 15 in the first half, trailing by nine with just under five to go. The Lions began fighting their way back, and entered the half down just three, 30-27. A 56-47 second half boosted MSSU to victory.
"I thought we were in a really good spot when I looked at the half time stats and we were shooting 32 percent from the field and still only down three points," Boschee said. "I didn't think they were going to hold us to 30 percent the entire game, so I knew we had a little bit something left in us. If we could just control and contain our turnovers and make sure we got a shot every time down, we'd be ok."
CJ Carr led the way for the Lions, as he did last year when he led all scorers with 26 points. This time around, the senior guard led all MSSU scorers with 27 points, going 10-for-12 from the charity stripe. Elyjah Clark was the only other Lion in double-digits Thursday, scoring 18 points, but plenty of Lions chipped in. MSSU also won both the battle on the boards, outrebounding the Bearcats 34 to 28, while forcing 11 turnovers and only commiting eight.
Perhaps most impressive was that the Bearcats stars played well. Justin Pitts, the reigning DII player of the year, scored 31 points. Chris-Ebou Ndow posted his third double-double of the season, going for 12 and 10. Brett Dougherty and Joey Witthus combined for 25 points. The Lions were simply able to survive the Bearcats charge.
"The fortunate thing is we got guys who can make shots. CJ and Elyjah made some big shots down the stretch, a couple of them with hands in their face," Boschee said. "CJ is a big time player. He takes matchups personally. With Justin [Pitts] getting the credit that he deservingly does, I think CJ feels he's just as good a basketball player. He always steps up and plays. We put him on bigger guys, and that doesn't scare me one bit as a coach. He's got a lot of heart and grit and finds a way to get things done and that's what really our whole team was about that night."
So, what's the secret to the Lions success? Along with last season's February 18 upset, they nearly shocked the nation in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association tournament, hanging with NWMSU until the final seconds in a heartbreaking 67-63 loss. How do they continue to do what seemingly no other team in DII basketball can figure out how to do the past two years?
"I think a lot of it just has to do with matchups," Boschee said. "You got to figure out what your strength is as a team and obviously know what there strength is and just put it all together. What we do against them defensively may not work against other teams. You got to be efficient offensively, that's the bottom line. You can't turn the basketball over. The possessions are so magnified because they limit them with the style that they play. Defensively, limiting their 3-point attempts, not letting them catch and shoot 3s. We live and die with contested 2s. If Justin is going to go in and shoot a contested shot, we can live with that. What we can't live with is getting broke down defensively and having them spraying the ball all over the perimeter and knocking wide open 3-point shots down."
Missouri Southern is now 8-6 overall and 3-2 in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. After a home game Saturday, they hit the road twice before a January 17 matchup against the now-first place Washburn Ichabods. This could be just the spark the Lions' need to start a big run.
"It gives our team some confidence," Boschee said. "I told our guys we need to be confident, not cocky. We need to be a mature basketball team. We've taken some lumps early, but I feel we learned from those. I always believed in the team that we had. I never second guessed that we had the ability to beat them again. I believe so much in our guys and our players. I told the guys, it's all the mindset. It's got to be the one that's locked in the same way against the No. 1 team coming into your home place."