By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
It’s a rivalry restored this weekend in the MIAA as Northwest Missouri State gets set to host Missouri Western in basketball Saturday.
The Bearcat men are once again a force to be reckoned with. Ranked No. 5 in the country, Northwest is 13-1 overall 6-1 in the MIAA.
Ben McCollum, now in his 14th year as head coach at Northwest, says he has a team that can share the basketball effectively and develop the right habits.
"We're a very unselfish team," McCollum told KFEQ Radio. "We've got good kids. Pretty tough kids. I think the big thing for us is to continue to develop quality habits and bring effort every single game, every day, every practice. Like any team, if you can do that more consistently and just get better at what you're good at, eventually good things can happen."
Leading the way for Northwest is senior and St. Joseph native Diego Bernard, who made the decision to use his fifth year of eligibility and come play for the Bearcats one final season.
Not surprisingly, it’s worked out. Northwest is tied for first in the MIAA standings, and the Bearcats seem ready to compete for a fourth straight national championship.
McCollum says Bernard has become the natural leader of the team, and not just because of his playing ability.
"He's the heart and soul of the team, just because of the energy he can supply," McCollum said of Bernard. "For us, he supplies it every day. He's been great as far as being a leader this season. He's allowed the other guys to be comfortable because of his energy and toughness and mentality."
The Missouri Western men, meanwhile, are getting ready for their toughest test of the season so far.
The Griffons are 7-5 overall and 3-3 in the MIAA after a 62-61 loss to Rogers State and a 75-73 loss to Northeastern State over this past week - both at home.
Missouri Western coach Will Martin says there's a lot his team can learn from those experiences.
"There's nobody who wants to win more than me," Martin said on the Missouri Western Coaches' Luncheon Tuesday. "It's probably an unhealthy obsession how bad I want to win, and that's what we're here to do. But for me, it's always about the deeper lessons for life."
Missouri Western seeks its first win over Northwest in men's hoops since January 2013. The Griffons haven't won in Maryville since January 2009. Northwest has won 21 straight games in this series.
Coach Martin knows that his team needs to start delivering on their end of this rivalry at some point.
"We have to start doing our part on the basketball end when it comes to that rivalry," Martin admitted. "It's hard to call it a rivalry when they've won 20 straight games against us. We have to do our part, and that's what we intend to do when we go down there and when we get them again at home."
Missouri Western will host Northwest on February 18.
A big X-factor for Missouri Western Saturday, though, could be junior forward JaRon Thames. The St. Louis native played in all 31 games last year and started 18 of them, scoring a career-high 27 points against the Bearcats last February.
Thames has played 22 minutes in four games this year. He's been limited with a hand injury, but he had his best outing of the season Monday against Northeastern State, coming off the bench and scoring 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting in just six minutes.
"It's been hard for (Thames) to go through the psychological and physical battle of getting injured and reinjured and not knowing if he was going to be able to play at all this year," Martin said. "I'm really, really proud of his response. He just gives us a different mojo on the floor. When he's on the floor, you feel like you can get a bucket."
Missouri Western women's basketball once again trending up
The Missouri Western women's basketball team finds themselves, once again, in a pretty strong position entering the back half of the season.
The Griffons are 12-4 overall and 6-2 in the MIAA following a 74-53 win over Northeastern State in St. Joseph Monday. It’s their fifth straight win and Missouri Western is now tied for third in the MIAA standings.
Heading into this portion of the season, head coach Candi Whitaker wants her team to show consistent intensity in each game.
"I always want our team to compete like they're competing for a national championship every time they hit the floor," Whitaker said. "It's challenging at times when you're playing a team and it's a bit lopsided, but we just have to have more discipline."
Still, coming off of a Central Region title and 24 wins last year, the Griffons are riding high in early 2023.
"I think our confidence level is very high," sophomore Abby Bala said after scoring a career-high 17 points against Northeastern State Monday. "I think we're all just on a roll and we'll be ready to keep it going."
Missouri Western assistant coach Emily Wacker says the team's depth and fast tempo on offense have, once again, been keys to success this year.
"Sharing the ball and being able to play a lot of people," Wacker said. "I think depth is something we've always talked about. Being able to continue to use that to our advantage is really important, especially as we get into January and February basketball."
The Griffons have 10 players who average more than 14 minutes per contest, with several players taking on bigger roles.
Junior and Missouri State transfer Trinity Knapp is one of them. The 6-2 forward has started eight games, is shooting north of 52 percent and leads the team with 14 total blocks.
Coach Wacker says Knapp has embraced her starting role.
"She looks to me like she's comfortable," Wacker said of Knapp, "and not in a bad way, but a good way. She's found a rhythm and a groove. She's not forcing, but taking what is presented to her and really finding her stride. I think the players around her are understanding where does Trinity want the ball and where is she going to be the most successful."
Another player taking on a bigger role is the aforementioned Abby Bala. She’s started each of the last four games, and is now second on the team with 20 made three-pointers. However, Bala says becoming a better defender is something she’s prioritized.
"Over the postseason and preseason, I really worked on my defense," Bala said. "Just to stay active with my feet and my hands. If you can play defense, you can play offense. It kind of goes hand-in-hand."
There’s still a long road ahead this year, and that journey starts Saturday in Maryville at Northwest Missouri State (7-6, 2-5 MIAA). Coach Whitaker says the Bearcats provide a unique challenge.
"(Northwest) wants it to be slow and they don't want to give you anything in transition," Whitaker noted. "They do a great job. They don't make mistakes on the offensive end. They rarely turn it over. They're unique. I'm glad we've had some time. One, to get a day off, and then also to prep."
Coach Wacker says the Griffons should win if they simply stick to what’s been working thus far.
"I think it's doing what we do best," Wacker said when asked what the key to victory is. "Just playing fast and playing with good energy. Sharing the basketball. That up tempo, fast-paced style of basketball, really we're at our best when we're doing that. Shooters stepping up with confidence and sharing the basketball."
Saturday's games start at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Both will be broadcast live on KFEQ Radio (680, 95.3, 680kfeq.com, KFEQ app) with coverage starting at 1 p.m.
You can follow Tommy on Twitter @TommyKFEQ and St. Joseph Post @StJosephPost.