(KANSAS CITY, Mo.) As Ben McCollum stated after the game: everyone started to believe it was over.
Fort Hays State, the number one seed in the MIAA Tournament, who had bested Northwest twice this season already, had a 12-point lead in the second half.
But the Bearcats locked down for one of the finest defensive stretches in McCollum's tenure, allowing just one field goal over the final 12:35 to stun Fort Hays 73-66.
Northwest (21-9) advances to Sunday's MIAA Tournament Championship against Central Missouri with a shot at a second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The early stages included a duel between DeAngelo Hailey and Ben Conguista. Hailey scored the Bearcats' first eight points and 11 of their first 13. He'd stick on that 11 points for the remainder of the first half. Conguista didn't miss a shot until the second half, ending with 21 points.
The Fort Hays bigs imposed their will ealy on, throwing down a pair of momentum-building dunks and holding Dillon Starzl and Kyle Schlake largely in check through the first 20 minutes.
With a five-point lead at the half, the Tigers continued to roll out to a 12-point advantage at the 13:35 mark. Things deteriorated further for the Bearcats when Hailey came down awkward on his left ankle and did not return to the game after being helped off. McCollum said he did not expect Hailey to play Sunday.
Northwest overcame that to stage a comeback that culminated in back-to-back buckets by Starzl, giving them their first lead of the second half with 3:03 remaining. They held that advantage until the final buzzer, stringing together nine free throws to hold off the Tigers.
The Bearcats will tip against Central Missouri at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City.