Northwest Missouri State basketball star Justin Pitts took a while to find his rhythm, but once he did, the junior played a major part in the Bearcats punching their ticket to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.

Top-ranked Northwest earned an 55-52 victory over Southwest Minnesota State Tuesday night in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,315 in Bearcat Arena.

It was the Bearcats’ fourth straight regional championship game but the first time winning after three heartbreakers.

“After last year’s loss, a lot of us stayed most of the summer and worked hard,” said Pitts, a Blue Springs South High School graduate who was named the tournament Most Outstanding Player following the game. “We worked hard all season. We worked all preseason. It feels so good. We were so close the last three years so it feels pretty special to finally get to the Elite Eight.”

Pitts shot 4-for-13 in the first half, and 9-for-26 for the game, but finished with a game-high 25 points. He scored the Bearcats’ final seven points of the game, four of them coming at the free-throw line to seal it with less than a minute to play.

While it was Pitts’ second-lowest field goal percentage on a season-high 26 attempts, Northwest coach Ben McCollum was thrilled with the way he played.

“Offensively, I thought he was excellent tonight,” McCollum said of Pitts, who also had five assists and five rebounds. “I’m sure he would have liked to hit a few more, but when the game comes down to the end, he’s allowed to be Justin. He’s humble enough to understand that he can’t be Justin without the other guys. The other guys allow him to do that.”

The Bearcats led 41-37 with 6 minutes, 30 seconds to go in the second half, before both teams scored and Northwest led 45-39.

Taylor Schafer hit a 3-pointer for SMSU to cut the lead to 45-42 with 3:55 to go. The Bearcats took advantage of a three-chance possession the following time down the floor before D’Vante Mosby laid it in with 2:40 to go, forcing another Mustang timeout.

McCollum said that was a big swing in the game. Mosby had both of the rebounds to keep possession for Northwest (32-1).

“D’Vante is one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever coached,” McCollum said of the Fort Osage High School graduate who finished with eight points and seven rebounds. “He was an all-conference player at William Jewell. He’s just a champion now.”

Schafer responded with another 3-pointer to cut the lead to 47-45 and force a Bearcat timeout, momentarily silencing the raucous crowd.

SMSU’s Ryan Bruggeman fouled Pitts on the next possession, which put him on the line. He made one of two to make it 48-45, before a Schafer jumper cut the lead back to one.

Pitts answered with a layup to put the lead back at three with 1:24 left. Mitch Weg then got to the line for the Mustangs made the first, but missed the second.

Pitts hit another jumper on the next possession to give the Bearcats enough breathing room to hang on down the stretch.

The Bearcats carried a 24-19 lead into the break, as points were to be at a premium early.

Defense reigned supreme early as the score was tied at 8-8 going into the first media timeout.

Bruggeman essentially kept the Mustangs in the game single-handedly, scoring a team-high points in the second after 11 in the first half.

McCollum gave plenty of credit to the Mustangs

“First off, congratulations to Southwest Minnesota and the year that they had,” he said. “I’m good friend with coach (Brad) Bigler, and we talk quite often. He’s a special person, and he has a special group of guys.”

SMSU senior Joey Bartlett said the atmosphere inside Bearcat Arena made a difference and was unlike anything he’s played in before.

“This was probably the toughest environment I’ve had to play in,” he said. “With how loud the crowd is, we had to do some different hand signals that we haven’t had to do before. It makes talking on defense a lot tougher.”

Teams will be re-seeded for the Elite Eight portion of the tournament, which kicks off March 22 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.