Justin Pitts sat and squirmed and agonized while sitting on the bench of the MIAA Tournament championship game Sunday at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium.
The Blue Springs South High School grad had scored 24 points in Friday’s 65-57 semifinal win over Central Oklahoma, but a recurring foot/toe injury had him on the bench in the second half Sunday as the 27-3 Bearcats won their third straight conference championship, getting an “ugly” 80-74 win over Washburn.
“That was the longest 20 minutes of my life,” said Pitts, the reigning NCAA Division II Player of the Year who led the Bearcats to a 35-1 record and a national championship last year, “because I felt so helpless. I wanted to get back in the game, but I just couldn’t.
“I had that (turf) toe thing at the end of the (regular) season, but this was more like an overall foot kind of injury. I was wearing some new shoes the first half, and I changed them, thinking that would help. But it didn’t – so I had to sit and watch. And my guys pulled it out. I couldn’t be any prouder of this team. We had to dig deep to get this win.”
The 22-9 Ichabods then made a charge with Pitts on the bench that cut the second-half deficit to 51-45.
“The closer they got,” Pitts said, “the tougher it was for me. I wanted to be out there so badly.”
With 4:31 left in the game, the Bearcats were clinging to a 69-66 lead. That’s when Xavier Kurth stepped in the passing lane and intercepted an Ichabod pass. He hit the layup to give Northwest some much needed momentum. They hit six consecutive free throws in the closing minutes to ice the win.
“Three in a row,” said Blue Springs High School graduate Kirk Finley, “that’s all I’ve known since I came here. Three years – three MIAA titles. It’s amazing to be a part of a program like this. Everyone knows how great Justin is, and he does things you have to see to believe, but we did it today without him and that should give us some extra confidence going into the (Division II) Tournament. It was ugly, but it was a win, and that’s all that matters at this time of the year.”
Redshirt freshman Tyree King, another Blue Springs grad, wore one of the biggest smiles on the court as he waited his turn to snip a piece of the championship net as friends and family members took photos.
“I thought this was going to be an amazing experience,” said King, a three-sport star for the Wildcats, “but it’s even better than I imagined. I’m the new guy on the team – everyone is talking about being a part of the three conference championships – this is all new to me and I’m really enjoying it.”
When asked about the play of Pitts, who scored 24 points in a Friday semifinal win over Central Oklahoma, King just shook his head.
“I’m watching him and thinking, ‘How did he do that?’” King said. “But now, this late in the season, nothing he does surprises me. He’s just an amazing player and an amazing teammate and person. He’s kind of taken me under his wing and taught me some things. It’s been amazing.”
Bearcats coach Ben McCollum agreed with King. When asked about Pitts, he said, “He’s been the guy for this team the past three years. But when you watch him, he is so humble. He’s the type of player you want to see succeed. He didn’t play in the second half, but he has the biggest smile on his face because we won – that’s all he cares about is winning – and that’s why he is so special to everyone on this team.”
Despite missing the second half of Sunday’s game, Pitts was named the MVP of the tournament.
The Bearcats will be the top seed in the Central Region of the NCAA Division II Tournament and will be the regional host. They will open with No. 8 seed Minnesota State at 6 p.m. Saturday in Maryville. Three more wins will put the Bearcats back into the Elite Eight. March 20-24 in Sioux Falls, S.D.