By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
The Northwest Missouri State men's basketball team quickly overcame a slow start and dominated down the stretch in a 98-77 win over West Liberty in an Elite Eight contest at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana Wednesday.
The 98 points are the most Northwest has ever scored in an Elite Eight game.
Senior Ryan Hawkins was dominant with 32 points - a new career postseason high.
"Transition kick-out threes is the best shot in basketball there is," said Hawkins, who was an outstanding 11-of-14 from the field, including 6-of-8 from three. "I felt like our offense got a lot of those shots tonight for everybody."
Hawkins led five Bearcats (26-2) in double figures. Junior Trevor Hudgins turned in 23 points, while junior Diego Bernard scored 14 after getting two fouls in the first three minutes.
Sophomore Luke Waters scored 13 points, while freshman Byron Alexander tallied 11 points and 10 rebounds for his first career double-double.
Alexander went down late in the game with an ankle injury, and had to be helped off the floor. His exact status wasn't known as of late Wednesday.
Northwest was 9-of-20 from beyond the arc as a team and shot an impressive 61.8 percent from the field. At one point, the Bearcats were shooting better than 70 percent from the field in the second half.
Northwest also dominated on the boards, 40-22.
For Hawkins and his teammates, they treated it like business as usual.
"It felt like just another game," Hawkins said. "It's win or go home at this point, so you have to bring your best. We weren't at our best to start, but we got it corrected and went on a little run there in the first half."
After falling behind 8-4 in the first five minutes, Northwest responded with a 13-3 run and took a 21-15 lead with 8:45 left in the first half. Pretty soon, the lead ballooned and Northwest led 51-32 at the break.
"We just played our defense," said Hawkins. "We had a week to prepare for it. We just stuck to who we were and what we do defensively, and we slowed them down quite a bit."
It was the lowest scoring first half of the season for West Liberty, who entered the game with a nation-leading 102 points per contest.
"Once we calmed down, we were able to get (West Liberty) in rotation and were able to get kick-out threes and open layups and were able to finish them in transition," Northwest head coach Ben McCollum said, as he's now 15-1 in his last 16 NCAA tournament games.
"I was proud of our kids' effort and was proud of the week of practice we had going into it. Now, it's onto the next."
Northwest is back at it in the Final Four on Thursday night at 8:45 p.m., as they'll take on Flagler College. The Lions (18-2) beat Truman State late Wednesday night, 70-69.
A quick turnaround. But for a Northwest team that's playing in its third Final Four in four years, it's business as usual.
"We'll find a way," McCollum said. "It's a quick turnaround and a quick scout. Everyone is tired this time of year. You just survive and advance."
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