Senior Ben Miller was the hero against Briar Cliff earlier in the season when he hit a shot in the final moments to force overtime and then made the game winner in the extra period. This time around, he was heroic for an entire game.
Miller scored 24 as No. 8 Northwestern defeated Briar Cliff 88-77 on Wednesday night in Orange City. The conference win pushes the Raiders to 10-3 in the GPAC and 16-5 overall. They are currently half a game behind No. 12 Doane for the conference lead.
The crowd was loud and set an imposing atmosphere before the ball was even thrown up for the tip-off. The Raiders capitalized on that emotion and went up 5-0 quickly with junior Zack Leeper’s free throws and a three-pointer on their first possessions. They did not trail the Chargers all night.
Solid rebounding and defense led to easy baskets to put NW up by as much as 13 with 11:58 left in the first half.
The lead remained steady, and NW was comfortably up 49-37 at the intermission.
The second half was more of the same for both sqauds. The Raiders continued to find driving lanes to the basket. When they weren’t able to finish their close attempts, a trip to the free-throw line usually resulted.
“It’s been the focus during practice to find the open guys and to get to the hole,” freshman forward Bryce Moss said. “Either we get fouled and go to the line or put it in (the hoop) while drawing some contact.”
Briar Cliff continued to try and shoot themselves out of the slump, but many forced shots and turnovers later, NW held an 18-point advantage with 11:58 left.
The Chargers seemed to have given up on the game and took out their starters soon after. The substitutes worked to keep the game within reach, and the Raiders’ comfortable margin had dwindled to eight points with 4:07 left.
Head coach Kris Korver kept his main rotation in throughout the game, and Briar Cliff’s final charge was squleched with efficient shooting by Korver’s squad in the final minutes.
Briar Cliff, which had been receiving votes in the most recent NAIA poll, shot the ball better in the second half, and outscored NW 40-39.
Miller went 12-12 from the charity stripe and had seven assists to go with his game-high point total of 24.
“Ben being able to drop 20 every night is a huge lift to the team because we know that he will find the open people when he drives and gets doubled,” Moss said. “It also helps to know that we have the best player out on the court every night, and he will get things done when they need to get done for us.”
Vander Plaats shot 70 percent from the field and scored 17. Leeper and Goslinga had 16 and 10 points, respectively. Leeper was tied with Miller for a team-high eight rebounds.
The Raiders did not rely on three-point shooting, especially in the second half, to get their points. They attempted only eight all game. Instead they shot 51 percent from the floor and earned 35 trips to the free-throw line. NW shot 86 percent on its free tosses.
The home squad also took exceptional care of the basketball on their home court, only coughing it up eight times all game.
NW will make the drive to Hastings, Neb., on Saturday to battle with the No. 25 Broncos. The game will start at 4 p.m.