By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
Once again, Northwest Missouri State just made it look easy this week.
The Bearcats (28-2) breezed their way through the Elite Eight and dominated West Texas A&M, 80-54, in the Division II national championship game at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana Saturday.
A dominant week indeed, as Northwest won its Elite Eight, Final Four and national title game by an NCAA-record 78 points combined.
This win marks the third national championship in Northwest program history - all of which have come since 2017.
It's also the 300th career victory for 12th-year head coach and future hall-of-famer Ben McCollum, who's now guided Northwest to a 97-3 record over their last 100 games, including 43 straight wins on neutral courts.
It was this season, McCollum says, that was the toughest one to get through mentally.
"It's really neat to be able to win this for your kids," McCollum said. "They put in so much effort, especially this season with the COVID piece added to it. It's a grind. It's a mental grind. I said at the beginning of the year that the team that's going to win this is going to be the toughest mentally.
"This was probably the most difficult (championship run). Just in regards to handling success, the emotions of COVID and the emotions of last year. All of those things made it really difficult."
Senior Ryan Hawkins, who was named the tournament's most valuable player after a dominant 31-point, 18-rebound performance Saturday, said this run felt extra special simply because of all of the obstacles that were in place right from the beginning.
"This one was a lot more player-led," he said after dropping his 30th career double-double. "Just because of COVID and the restrictions that we had. We had a quarantine period there right before Christmas break, where we had 23 days without basketball and we had to find a way to stay in shape."
West Texas A&M kept it within single digits for most of the first half Saturday, but the Bearcats went on a 14-4 run in the final 3:59 before halftime to go up 48-29 at the break.
Even before that, the Bearcats had strong confidence right out of the gate that they could put the Buffaloes away.
"Through the first possession, we knew we were going to be able to control the game and take what we wanted on offense," Hawkins said, "and frustrate them on defense and make sure we weren't going to let them get into a rhythm."
Just like in Thursday's Final Four game, the second half belonged to Northwest. The Bearcats never led by any less than 18 points in the final 20 minutes, as they outscored the Buffaloes 26-10 in the first 12 minutes of the second half alone.
Northwest held the Buffaloes (19-3) to just 31.3 percent shooting from the field, including just 5-of-24 (21 percent) from three-point range.
"It's a great day to be a Bearcat," said Hawkins. "The feeling never gets old. I feel like we played a pretty good game. Overall, just a really good feeling right now. I feel like everyone had a great game offensively. We took what the defense was giving us. We knew we had a little bit of a size mismatch at three positions, and we kind of exposed that."
Sophomore Wes Dreamer tallied his fourth career double-double with 19 points and 11 rebounds on a 3-of-5 effort from beyond the arc. Junior and player of the year Trevor Hudgins scored 15, while sophomore Luke Waters piled on 13.
The Bearcats shot 27-of-54 from the field Saturday, including an impressive 7-of-15 clip from deep.
Northwest also made 19-of-24 shots from the free throw line, while West A&M was just 9-of-11 from the same range.
After another historic, dominant run this season, one can't help but wonder if another run like this is coming next season, as Northwest returns its entire starting lineup for 2021-22.
"For these kids to perform like that," McCollum said, "I mean, they've lost three games (in the last two seasons). Two to the same team (Washburn). It's just...it's unbelievable. Unprecedented, really."
So unbelievable, that West Texas A&M head coach Tom Brown said afterward that Northwest could "probably beat half of the teams in D1. They're probably in the wrong tournament. They should be in the Division I NCAA tournament."
McCollum isn't one to read into things like that very much. But, it was still nice to hear.
"I don't get overly concerned with that," McCollum said, "but, I certainly am humbled by it."
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