SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Tough defense wins championships on the gridiron, and now, on the hardwood for Northwest Missouri State.
The men’s basketball team claimed the Division II championship on Saturday night by beating top-seeded Fairmont State, 71-61, in a nationally-televised contest on CBS in front of a sellout crowd of 3,250 at the Sanford Pentagon.
Just months after the top-ranked defense in Division II football helped the school win a NCAA record sixth national title, coach Ben McCollum’s defense helped shutdown one of the highest-scoring teams in the country to win the first basketball title for a school that first started playing in 1915.
“We take a lot of pride in our defense,” Northwest junior guard Justin Pitts said. “I felt tonight, we felt more focused and locked in. We knew they were a great team that can push in transition and score a lot of points.”
The foe on the other side of the court posed a daunting task for the Bearcats (35-1). Fairmont was the No. 1 seed in the field and was the top-scoring team in the field at 95.4 points per game. The Fighting Falcons entered the game having made the sixth-most 3-pointers per game in D-II at 11.3 per contest. In six of the past seven games, they had made at least 10 3-pointers, including 26 in the previous two games at the Elite Eight.
McCollum and his coaching staff crafted a defense that limited Fairmont to only 17.6 percent shooting from the beyond the arc, going 3-for-17 and a mere 1-for-8 in the second half.
This marked the second straight game the Bearcats stingy defense — ranked No. 2 in Division II — shutdown a team that averaged more than 90 points a game. Lincoln Memorial, which averaged 92.3, scored only 67 in the semifinals against Northwest.
“Our big motto every single year is ‘impose your will,’ you have to aggressively do that,” McCollum said. “You can’t be passive against a team as aggressive as Fairmont State because they are so good, so talented, so athletic, and they play so hard. The only chance you have is to impose your will. Our will is ‘hey, see if you can score on us on the half-court, OK.’ Lets make sure we guard the basketball, but yet pressure it to run you off the threes. Obviously we were able to get steals, take a few charges and whatnot.
“That is who we are. It is easier to slow a game down than speed it up if you have good enough personnel to do that. And we have good enough personnel to do that.”
Northwest forward Zach Schneider added: “We did a great job of slowing them down and making them go against our set defense and that is a tough thing to do.”
Pitts and Chris-Ebou Ndow were named to the All-Tournament team and Pitts earned the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award, the third straight award this postseason for the Blue Springs native.
Pitts, who finished with 23 points and played all 40 minutes, was also named the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association Tournament’s and the Central Regional’s Most Outstanding Player.
“We got to take a couple days off,” Pitts said of thinking ahead of his senior year. “I’m pretty tired and I’m not going to think about it. I’m going to enjoy this right now with my teammates. I don’t know. Maybe in the summer.”
Pitts leaves South Dakota in sixth place on the MIAA career scoring leaderboard. He jumped two players during Saturday’s game, passing Southeast Missouri State’s Carl Ritter (1959-63, 1,916 points) and Missouri-Rolla’s Bill Jolly (1989-93, 1,920 points). Pitts entered the Elite Eight at No. 8 all-time and has positioned himself to become only the fourth player in MIAA history with 2,000-plus points.
For the third straight game in Sioux Falls, the Bearcats got off to a fast start and built an early lead. Pitts hit a 3-pointer for the first points of the game 58 seconds after tip-off.
Northwest scored the first seven points and led 21-9 at the 11 minutes, 5 second mark. From that point on though, Fairmont (34-3) played right with the Bearcats the rest of the first half.
The Falcons — all three losses came against nationally-ranked teams — cut the deficit down to seven at one point, but Northwest went into the half up 32-21.
Fairmont and Northwest played a nearly even second 20 minutes, as the Fighting Falcons outscored Northwest by one.
Fairmont cut the deficit down to eight early in the second half, which forced McCollum to burn a timeout. Matt Bingaya, a Southern Miss transfer, scored the first seven points of the half for Fairmont State and pulled his team within 36-28.
Northwest pushed the lead up to a 13, but a 3-pointer from Thomas Wimbush cut the Bearcats’ lead down to 45-37 with 10-plus minutes to play.
The back-and-forth quarter continued with the Bearcats slowly pulling away only for the Fighting Falcons to come back. Bingaya, an All-American, played a big part in keeping his squad in the game by scoring 20 of his game-high 24 in the second half.
He had a combined 18 points in the first two Elite Eight games, but showed the prowess that helped him average double figures in Conference USA.
The last push for the Fighting Falcons came when Wimbush, who had 17, hit 3 of 4 free throws with less than 6 minutes to play.
Up 58-50, Northwest closed out the win on the free-throw line, hitting 7 of their last 10 foul shots over the final 3:15.
Anthony Woods, who scored 13 points, had the ball in the final seconds and then skied the ball in the air as the buzzer sounded.
Then a stream of confetti came down on the floor as the Bearcats celebrated the historic victory on the same court where the past two seasons ended in a loss in the playoffs.