Hot-Shooting Bearcats End Hilltoppers' NCAA Run
EVANSVILLE, Ind. – Defending national champion Northwest Missouri State nearly shot the lights out of the Ford Center here Wednesday night in handing West Liberty a 98-77 setback in an NCAA Division II Elite Eight quarterfinal.
Coach Ben Howlett's Hilltoppers (18-5) held the lead for much of the early going but the Bearcats (26-2) used an 11-0 burst over a three-minute span to take the lead for good midway through the first half.
West Liberty trailed just 21-17 after a Pat Robinson jumper but Northwest Missouri's Trevor Hudgins answered with a pair of free throws at the other end and the Bearcats spent the remaining 7 1/2 minutes of the period conducting an offensive clinic.
Fueled by the 1-2 punch of Hudgins – the NCAA Division II National Player of the Year – and first-team All-American Ryan Hawkins, NWMSU amazingly scored on every possession for the rest of the half to open up a 51-32 halftime lead.
"There's a reason those guys are the defending national champions," Howlett said. "There's a reason they've only lost three games in three years. They are really, really good. Game tape doesn't do them justice. They're much better in person than they are on film."
Although the Bearcats had shot a blistering 67 percent from the floor (20-of-30) over the first 20 minutes, they were far from finished. After misfiring on a couple of early possessions in the second half, Northwest Missouri hit seven straight shots from the floor to put the game out of reach.
When Hawkins capped the surge with his sixth 3-point bomb of the night, the Bearcats' lead had hit 30 points, 74-44, with 14:18 remaining and the defending national champions were shooting 73 percent (29-of-40) from the floor.
West Liberty spent the rest of the night chipping away at the margin but couldn't get enough stops to get closer than the final score as the Bearcats finished the night shooting 62 percent (34-of-55) from the floor and won the battle of the boards by a 40-22 margin.
"You have to have a couple things go your way against a team like that," Howlett said. "You have to shoot the ball well – we didn't – and you have to control the rebounds. You're not going to win against the elite teams with the kind of numbers we put up tonight but Northwest Missouri deserves a lot of credit for that. My hat's off to them. They were the better team tonight and we wish them luck the rest of the way."
Pat Robinson III led West Liberty with 20 points while Dalton Bolon and Bryce Butler added 15 and 11 points, respectively. Hawkins had a game-high 32 points for the Bearcats on 11-of-14 shooting – 6-of-8 from behind the arc – while Hudgins added 23 points and a game-high 5 assists.
"Obviously not the way we wanted this to end but I'm incredibly proud of these guys for fighting through all the challenges of the season," Howlett said. "We didn't put our best basketball on the floor tonight but in the end, we were one of the last eight teams standing. This is a special group of guys and I'd love to see us come back and take another crack at this next year."