The St. Thomas Aquinas College men's basketball team battled to the end but came up short in a 79-70 loss to Northwest Missouri State at the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Spartans, ranked #7 among the finalists coming in, end the campaign with a 28-6 mark with Northwest Missouri advancing while improving to 33-1 overall.
Northwest Missouri State bolted from the gate on the strength of standout guard Justin Pitts, who hit a pair of treys to stake his team to an early 8-2 advantage. Chaz Watler answered from deep to trim the gap to 8-5, but a baseline dunk from Chris-ebou Ndow put the Bearcats in a 12-7 advantage with 14:40 left in the first.
STAC's defense stepped up and a pair of Justin Reyes hoops gave the Spartans the lead at 18-16 just past the midway point. While Northwest Missouri State struggled from the floor, particularly from the perimeter, their defense was effective in slowing the tempo, holding the Spartans without a field goal for nearly six minutes, though STAC remained well within striking distance with a 33-27 deficit at the intermission.
Zach Schneider and Ndow hit from deep early in the second half, opening the Bearcats lead to a game-high 41-31, but Reyes quickly answered with a three of his own to cut the gap to 41-34 with just over 17 minutes left, and off an immediate turnover, Chaz Watler trimmed the margin to five with a baseline jumper.
Noted for their high-powered offense, the Spartans held tough on the defensive end, with Adam Koziol bringing his team to within 44-41 with 13 minutes left. STAC's pressure forced turnovers, helping close to as little as two points, but consecutive threes from Pitts and Schneider gave NWMS a 58-49 cushion with under seven to play.
Once again, Northwest Missouri appeared on the verge of putting the contest away with a 61-51 gap, but a lay-up and a quick three by Reyes kept the Spartans' pulse alive. That was the be their final gasp, however, as the Bearcats closed strong to secure the victory.
Reyes put on his usual stellar performance, recording the game high with 28 points to go with five rebounds and four blocks, with Aaron Cust adding 14 for STAC. Pitts led the way for the Bearcats, leading four scorers in double-figures with 26.