WARRENSBURG — The mystique built around the Northwest Missouri State mens basketball program has rightfully been earned.
Six straight MIAA championships. Two national titles in the last three years. A 46-game winning streak. A nine-game winning streak over Central Missouri.
None of that mattered to UCM on Saturday, Dec. 7, as the Mules matched the No. 1 Bearcats blow-for-blow before ultimately pulling off the upset 72-60 at the Multi.
The Bearcats aura of invincibility kept the majority of 1,800 fans in attendance from believing UCM was going to pull off the improbable win — despite the Mules leading for over half the game and for the final 11 minutes, 27 seconds — until the final horn.
It felt like Northwest, who came into the game shooting 53.7% from the field and 45.9% from three, would snap out of whatever funk was afflicting the Bearcats, who shot a season-low 36.5% from the field and 24.1% from three, and break out a run much like last season’s 12-0 against the Mules that dashed a similar upset bid.
“Honestly, about two minutes to go,” Central Missouri coach Doug Karleskint, who had led the Mules past Northwest only once prior in his time at UCM, said on when he felt the upset was real. “Then when (Northwest coach Ben McCollum) made the subs with a minute to go, then it really hit me. We are going to get this done. That joy for our guys, because it’s been a long time coming.”
The postgame atmosphere was a far cry from the mood the Mules left the Multi with on Thursday, Dec. 5, after letting Missouri Western steal a 67-63 win to open conference play.
“All the credit goes to our guys, fighting and believing and washing away Thursday night’s disappointment and for the most part, the disappointment thus far,” Karleskint said. “We feel like we are better team than what our record shows and hopefully the guys will believe in that after today, after beating a great team.”
The Mules needed 40 minutes of their best basketball and a few breaks to upend the defending national champions.
Mules senior Kendale Hampton opened the game with his first 3-pointer of the afternoon, setting the tone for UCM — who finished 11 of 25 from beyond the arc and matched a season-high in made 3-pointers.
“He is very capable,” Karleskint said. “We’ve been urging him, ‘you’ve got to be more aggressive,’ because we feel like he turns down some shots. It was important for him to hit some early, some tough ones early. He is a guy that can really, really score”
The transfer from Youngstown State hit a season-high six shots from three and finished with 20 points — breaking the 20-point barrier for the first time since the opening weekend of the season — to lead the Mules in scoring.
“Coach told me to play with confidence,” Hampton said. “I played with confidence and made some big-time shots.”
Northwest’s largest lead of the game came at the 7:17 mark of the first half at 18-13.
Central Missouri responded with an 8-0 run built by back-to-back 3-pointers from Gavin Pinkley and Hampton and a lay-up in transition by Daniel Farris to lead 21-18.
The Bearcats outscored UCM 8-4 over the final four minutes of the first half, including a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Tyler Dougherty, to give Northwest a 26-25 lead going into the locker room.
Central Missouri caught a break in the first half as Northwest ran into foul trouble early.
The Bearcats, who generally go one to two players deep on their bench, saw sophomore Diego Bernard pick up two fouls in quick succession at the midway point of the first half and then sit for the final 10 minutes of action while leading scorer Ryan Hawkins amassed three fouls in the first 20 minutes.
Hawkins, who ranks fourth in the nation with 26 points per game and the only player in Division II with multiple games of 40 points or more, did not make a field goal in the contest and was held to two points — which came on a pair of free throws with 1:14 left in the contest.
He was tabbed with his fourth foul just 1:07 into the second half. He returned with less than eight minutes to go in the game, but couldn’t break into the scoring column from the field.
“We were fortunate that they got Hawkins in foul trouble early,” Karleskint said. “When he picked up his fourth foul with 18 minutes to go in the game, I thought that was huge. A lot of things went our way and they have to when you beat a great team like that.”
The opening five minutes of the second half featured four lead changes and three ties as the teams wrestled for control of the game.
Hampton provided the Mules with some separation, knocking down back-to-back triples to give UCM its first lead of the second half at 40-38.
The Bearcats turned to Trevor Hudgins to stay in the game as the sophomore scored seven-straight points to keep Northwest in striking distance at 45-45, answering a 3-pointer by Garrett Luinstra and a bucket by Matt Wilkinson.
Hampton gave Central Missouri the lead for good at 48-45 with 11:27 to go, burying his final three of the night.
Northwest got back within a point before a 7-0 run by the Mules widened the lead to eight, 55-47, on a Pinkley three-pointer. The sophomore finished as UCM’s second-leading scorer with 16 points.
Wilkinson delivered the knockout blow with 3:25 to play, draining a 3-pointer to give UCM its first double-digit lead at 60-50. The senior finished with 11 points.
Central Missouri went 12 of 14 from the free throw line after going up 10 to seal the win. Luinstra, who finished with 11 points, was 6 of 6 during the stretch.
Central Missouri moves to 4-5 on the season with the win and 1-1 in MIAA play.
“I told the guys, we are about 15 to 18 possessions away from being 8-0,” Karleskint said on the message during the team’s prep for Northwest. “If we were in that position, it’d be a top ten match-up. I think when the guys started reminiscing about those certain possessions late in games, certain turnovers, certain missed shots, missed defensive assignments. They realized we are a lot better than our 3-5 record.”
The Mules won’t face a conference opponent until the new year, closing out 2019 with home games against NAIA foes Missouri Baptist on Dec. 18 and St. Mary’s on Dec. 31.
“(The win) means nothing if we don’t build on it,” Karleskint said. “Hopefully, it’s not a one-shot wonder here and we show up and do the best job at weights and study hall tomorrow then try and win Monday, thenTuesday and not get too far ahead of ourselves and not just take it easy because we beat them.”