By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
Northwest Missouri State (27-2) has steamrolled its way through the Elite Eight and has now reached the national championship game for the third time since 2017.
The Bearcats dominated Flagler in a 77-46 beatdown at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana on Thursday night.
The 31-point victory by Northwest is the largest ever for any team in a national semifinal. It comes just one day after the Bearcats dismantled West Liberty in the Elite Eight round, 98-77.
"I thought they were both good games," Northwest head coach Ben McCollum said. "It'll probably be another good game in the championship I hope."
Ryan Hawkins, despite picking up two fouls in the first three minutes, led his team in scoring once again with 20 points. He also had 11 rebounds for his eighth double-double this season and 29th of his career. Sophomore Luke Waters scored 15, junior Trevor Hudgins had 13 and junior Diego Bernard had 10.
Bernard, a Lafayette St. Joseph alum, was just shy of a double-double with nine rebounds and not far off from a triple-double with seven assists.
"Man, I was just trying to get the win," he chuckled. "I don't even know my stat line. It don't matter, as long as we got the win and are playing on Saturday."
Northwest was hot right out of the chute Thursday, going on a 7-0 run to start. Flagler kept up for a bit, trailing only 17-14 with about 10 minutes to go until halftime, but the Bearcats then pulled away with a 21-2 run, leading 38-16 with 3:43 left in the first half.
Leading 40-24 at the break, Northwest continued its crusade, and never came close to letting Flagler back in it. The Bearcats opened the second half on a 7-0 run and outscored the Saints 37-22 in the final 20 minutes, never leading by any less than 18 points during that time.
Northwest shot 12-of-31 from deep, while Flagler was just 5-of-22.
It is mind boggling when you take a step back and look at the numbers. McCollum is now 16-1 in his last 17 NCAA tournament games and 22-5 in tournament games overall with a chance to win a third national championship. The Bearcats have won 42 straight games on neutral floors. They've won 96 of their last 99 overall.
After going 31-1 last season, only to have the NCAA tournament wiped out by the pandemic, Bernard is excited to see what his team can do, now that they've reached the biggest stage once more.
"We felt like we should have been here last year if we had the chance," he said. "We're just trying to win one more game. It just feels good to be back."
It's all very remarkable - what Northwest has done. Not just in the last several years, but just in the last two days. They've outscored two Elite Eight teams by a combined score of 175-123.
Part of what's made Northwest so great in this stretch is their laser focus. Not on what they've done or on any stat, but rather on what lies in front of them.
"There's no style points," McCollum said on his team's performance in recent days. "It's just one of those things. We probably just had good matchups or what not. We played well, and they didn't play very well. There's nothing more to read into it in regards to whether we dominated or not. A win's a win, and you need to try and win the next game."
Northwest will face West Texas A&M for the Division II national title on Saturday at 11 a.m. The game will be televised nationally on CBS.
The Buffaloes (19-2) beat Lincoln Memorial in dramatic fashion, 87-86, after Zach Toussaint hit a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to put his team in the championship.
It was quite something. You should watch it.
You can follow Tommy on Twitter @TommyKFEQ and St. Joseph Post @StJosephPost.