PITTSBURG — The Pittsburg State men never found the answer on defense needed to put a run together on offense to overcome the relentless scoring of Northwest Missouri, falling 81-74 Saturday at John Lance Arena.

Pitt State never led in the game against the Bearcats. They cut the lead to one point, 56-55, near the six-minute mark of the second half, but couldn't got over the hump in terms of gaining the advantage. The Northwest Missouri lead remained at single digits down the stretch, but six straight points from NWMS inside four minutes to play pushed the lead to an insurmountable nine points, 70-61, with less than two minutes to play.

“I didn’t think we played bad. I definitely think we could have played better, but Northwest had a lot to do with that. You have to give them credit,” Pitt State head coach Kevin Muff said. “They’re good at exploiting what they believe to be mismatches ... You almost have to play the kind of game against this team where you keep them guessing on your defense ... Credit to our guys, they came out and they battled. They found a way to get back in it.”

With the loss, Pitt State falls to 11-10 on year with a 6-9 MIAA record. Northwest Missouri State remains atop the conference with a 15-5 overall record, 12-3 in the MIAA.

“You can put a negative spin on it, or you can put a positive spin on it. I’d much rather see the positive side of it,” Muff said. “We’re a good team. We’re not as good as we need to be right now, and I think we understand that ... I’m not going to give up on these guys, and I don’t think they’re going to give up on us. We’ve just got to continue to chip away.”

The Gorillas trailed by 15 points in the first half, but a late run before intermission and a solid start to the second half put Pitt State within striking difference. PSU tied the game up twice in the first three minutes of the second half, but the Bearcats stretched their lead to eight points thanks to a 10-2 response over the next four minutes of action.

“We just didn’t make enough stops when we needed to defensively,” Pitt State guard Dakota Jones said. “They capitalized and drew out the lead.”

Trey Starks scored four consecutive points for Pitt State inside of nine minutes to play in the game to get PSU within one, 56-55.

Starks led the way for Pitt State, dropping 21 points, 19 of which came in the second half. He was 7 of 14 from the floor.

“We need him to assert himself as a scorer for us,” Muff said. “I thought he was a lot more aggressive in the second half.”

The NWMS lead went back up to five points after jumpers from Justin Pitts and Conner Crooker moments later, leaving the Gorillas trying to play catchup the rest of the way.

“It’s tough. Their team is very good. They are at the top of the conference and we tried to knock them off, but our defense just didn’t pull through for us,” Jones said.

Pitts finished as the game’s leading scorer with 26 points on 8-of-13 shooting, making 8 of his 11 free-throw attempts. Crooker had 17 points in the win, scoring five times from the field.

Chris-Ebou Ndow scored 18 points to give the Bearcats three players in double figures.

Northwest Missouri had a pair of 8-0 runs in the first half, leading the Bearcats to an eventual 14-point lead, 27-13, with 7:01 to play. NWMS built their first-half advantage as high as 15 points on an Anthony Woods’ layup with 4:20 to play.

Pitt State trimmed the Northwest Missouri lead to single digits, 33-25, on a 3-pointer from Jones with less than two minutes to play in the opening half.

Jones — who finished with 20 points, making all four of his 3-point attempts — followed up with a pull-up jumper from the left elbow and a baseline reverse layup on a backdoor cut with the assist from Javis Flynn with 36 seconds to play get the Gorillas within four of the lead.

Jones’ seven-point stretch was part of a 9-0 Gorilla run to close out the half to trail the Bearcats 33-29.

“I think [that late run] is what allowed us to tie the game up in the second half,” Muff said. “We did a good job of cutting the gap.”

PITT STATE SCOREBOOK

The Gorillas finished with four players in double figures. Along with Starks and Jones, Jaxon Holden had 13 points, while Josiah Gustafson finished with 11 points in the loss.

UP NEXT

Pitt State squares off with Washburn in a road match following the women’s game on Feb. 3 at Lee Arena in Topeka.

Lucas Davis is the sports editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. E-mail him at ldavis@morningsun.net and follow him on twitter at @LDsportswriter.