MARYVILLE, Mo. — As nice as a basketball game in Las Vegas sounds for Northwest Missouri State, coach Ben McCollum is treating his team to something better: great competition.
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Defending NCAA Division II champions Northwest Bearcats, 10-0 and ranked No. 1 in the NABC coaches Top 25, will take on the Lincoln Memorial Railsplitters, 11-0 and ranked No. 4, at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday at Kentucky Wesleyan Sportscenter in Owensboro, Ky.
The two teams met for the first time ever March 23, 2017, in the Division II semifinals at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. In that game, Lincoln Memorial took a one-point lead into halftime but Northwest outscored the Railsplitters by a baker’s dozen in the second half for a 79-67 victory.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Northwest senior guard Justin Pitts, who was Division II national player of the year last season. “It was a Final Four game last year. I remember they were big. I don’t know who they have back. I hope they don’t have those two big towers down there.”
Well, one of them is back: 6-foot-9 senior forward Emanuel Terry, who is averaging 17.9 points and 10.7 rebounds, is still hooping. Terry has big game experience. He was on the 2015-16 Lincoln Memorial team that finished national runner-up.
Yesterday’s snapshots. Next up: #1 Bearcats vs. #4 Lincoln Memorial in a Final 4 rematch from last year. Game will take place on Tue, Dec 19th in Owensboro, KY. pic.twitter.com/9ysdwqm70O
— Bearcat Basketball (@NWbball) December 11, 2017
“It’s awesome to play this game,” said Northwest senior Chris-Ebou Ndow. “I was surprised he (McCollum) got this game. He always tries to get them. It’s tough because of the distance, and teams don’t always want to play us because of the budget. For him to get this game is huge. We are going to need this game to test ourselves.”
Because of budget constraints, games like this between two teams from different regions of the country don’t happen often in Division II. It is 808 miles from Maryville, Mo., to Harrogate, Tenn.
Still, after playing such a competitive game in the national semifinals last season, McCollum wanted to face Lincoln Memorial during the regular season.
So he called Lincoln Memorial coach Josh Schertz.
“We were trying to do a home and home, but neither of us wanted to budge on who gets the first home game, so we decided let’s try a neutral site,” McCollum said.
McCollum was thrilled it worked out; he said it is the perfect game to play just before Christmas break.
“Lincoln Memorial is so well-coached and so good,” McCollum said. “It is going to be a good experience, regardless of the crowd. I am so excited for our kids to play this game. It will help us in all facets. It will expose things we are doing and not doing. Obviously, if we get the win, it helps us regionally. It is one of those great experiences for our kids.”
A national title is not on the line for this game, but make no mistake, players for both teams want to get a victory.
“If we come out with a win, it’s going to be great,” said Pitts, who is averaging 24.0 points and 5.4 assists. “We are going to have that experience under our belt with some young guys who didn’t get to play last year. Lincoln Memorial is a top four team in the country.”
— MIAA (@TheMIAA) December 11, 2017
It is a game the Bearcats are relishing because of the level of competition: Northwest has won nine of its first 10 games by double digits.
“We have had easy games,” said Ndow, who is averaging 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds. “We have had games where we might have won it in the first half. But this team is our biggest challenge so far, by far. It’s going to be a lot of fun. We need a test.”
The Bearcats are definitely going to get one. A couple of other Lincoln Memorial players that should get the Bearcats’ attention are senior guards Trevon Shaw and Dorian Pinson. Shaw leads the Railsplitters in scoring with a 21.8 points per game average and Pinson is averaging 13.2 points and 9.2 rebounds.
“They are a tough physical team,” Ndow said. “They are definitely long. They have athletic guys. They are one of those teams that has a lot of talent but are disciplined as well. That is a dangerous combination. If we do what we know we can, I think we will be fine.”