The Lincoln Blue Tigers gave a perfect effort for the first 15 minutes of Saturday's game against the No. 1 team in the nation.
Lincoln, however, needed that perfect effort to last the full 40 minutes.
The Northwest Missouri Bearcats finished the first half on a 16-4 run, then scored the first 10 points of the second half to pull away to a 75-57 win against the Blue Tigers at Jason Gym.
"They don't make mistakes, and you can't make mistakes against them," Lincoln coach John Moseley said. "They're going to make you pay when you do."
For nearly the first 15 minutes of the game, Lincoln never trailed against the last remaining undefeated team in Division II.
"If anybody in the league is going to beat those guys, you've got to keep gang-pressure on them, you've got to score with them, you've got to make them play from behind," Moseley said.
Terrance Smith opened the game with two offensive rebounds, two points and a blocked shot in the first minute for Lincoln.
Northwest Missouri missed its first five attempts from 3-point range, falling behind 7-2 just four minutes into the game.
The Bearcats, who led Division II with a 44.0 shooting percentage from 3-point range entering Saturday's game, had their worst performance from deep this season. They finished just 5-of-27 for 18.5 percent.
The thing is, while those shots didn't fall, Northwest Missouri made 59 percent of its attempts inside the arc.
"You pick your poison," Moseley said. "Do you want to run them off the 3-point line or do you want to make them drivers? We wanted to make them drivers, we wanted to try and stay between them and the basket.
"If you look at their team, they're going to take 3s or layups. They don't take many 8-to-15 foot jump shots."
Ni'Sean Rigmaiden's reverse layup with 9:29 left in the opening half gave Lincoln its largest lead a 22-16. However, on the Blue Tigers' next possession, Rigmaiden committed a turnover and picked up his second foul. Moseley said having to take his point guard out of the game was a factor in the momentum shift.
Northwest Missouri's freshman starters, Diego Bernard and Trevor Hudgins, scored the team's first 14 points. Hudgins finished with 24 points and Bernard added 14 points.
"They're going to be a problem for years to come," Moseley said.
When the momentum shifted, MIAA player of the year candidate Joey Witthus dominated for the Bearcats.
Witthus, a 6-foot-7 senior guard, scored eight points in the final five minutes of the first half for Northwest Missouri. He then added 19 of his game-high 30 points in the second half.
Lincoln also struggled from 3-point range, shooting just 4-of-17 beyond the arc.
"We make a lot of 3s, and we make 3s within our offense," Moseley said. "If you're not able to run your offense and get those guys looks that they're traditionally getting, then it's difficult."
The fouls began to catch up with the Blue Tigers in the second half, and Northwest Missouri took advantage, going 22-of-26 from the free-throw line.
"Overall, I thought we defended pretty good," Moseley said, as his team held the Bearcats to 40.7 percent shooting from the field, their second-lowest mark of the season.
"But you can't let them go to the free-throw line. They scored points with the clock stopped. You can't just let them walk to the free-throw line."
The Blue Tigers briefly closed the gap to 14 points with 13:52 to play, but Witthus made back-to-back 3s to stretch the Bearcats' lead back to 57-37.
Northwest Missouri (23-0, 13-0 MIAA) led by as many as 24 points with 2:45 remaining. The Bearcats only committed one turnover in the win.
Smith and Amariontez Ivory each scored 15 points to lead the Blue Tigers. Smith shot 7-of-12 from the field before fouling out with 4:57 to play.
Jonell Burton also finished with 10 points for the Blue Tigers.
Lincoln (16-6, 9-4 MIAA) dropped from a tie for second place to sole possession of fourth in the MIAA standings with the loss. The Blue Tigers begin their final road trip of the regular season with a 7:30 p.m. tip Thursday at Nebraska-Kearney.
"We were disappointed with the outcome today," Moseley said. "But this group's got a lot of basketball to be played."