As Matt Williamson watches the NCAA Division II Playoffs unfold, seeing conference foe Central Missouri advance to the regional semis and rival Northwest now battling for a spot in the national semis, he feels how close his team was.

His Missouri Western football team came one win against Nebraska-Kearney from possibly being in the national playoffs with a resume that would’ve boasted just two losses, both to two of the final 16 teams that remained.

The spotlight shined even brighter when the Bearcats drubbed Lindenwood by 56 points on Saturday, showing how close the Griffons feel to being ready to compete.

“The MIAA’s a super strong conference. It shows already. With Northwest playing Lindenwood the way they did too, it was good to see,” Williamson said. “We know we could’ve controlled our destiny earlier if we played better against Kearney, just didn’t play well that week. We would’ve been in the same position.”

While the playoffs didn’t come calling for the 8-3 Griffons over 9-2 Henderson State of the Great American Conference, the two teams just on the outside of the playoff picture will face off in Saturday’s Live United Bowl for one last chance at a victory in 2019.

“We didn’t end the season exactly how we wanted. We had some success and did some good things, but to play together as a group and get a ninth win would be great for this program,” Williamson said. “For the continuation of our culture and everything we’re trying to develop, it’s a great opportunity.”

A ninth win would be the most by Western since going 12-2 during a national quarterfinal run in 2012. And while a second straight bowl game appearance in Texarkana, Arkansas, doesn’t satisfy the group or help Western meet their goals, it will help set the standard in the years to come.

“Our number one goal is to get in the playoffs and have a chance to shoot for the national championship,” Williamson said. “That’s a goal we’ve set as a staff and program. Our kids are living it, committing to it, working for it. We’ve just gotta grow a little more.”

Men set to meet Mules

In Sundance Wicks’ lone season in charge of the Griffons, Central Missouri quickly became a team that turned into an instant rival.

Inside the MWSU Fieldhouse, UCM drained Western on a 3-point buzzer-beater. At the Multi in Warrensburg, Tyrell Carroll just missed a game-tying shot from the outside that would’ve led the Griffons a step closer toward avenging the loss.

At the end of the season, Western finished just one game back of advancing to the MIAA Tournament and looks back at those losses as a reason why.

“Last year we played them to two close games. At the end of the day you wanna make sure you come out on the other side,” Wicks said. “For us, it’s gonna be some guys we’re really looking forward to.

“I really believe those games kept us out of the playoffs last year. It hasn’t gone forgotten in our program. Our guys understand what’s at stake. You don’t play against the opponent, you play against the game.”

Missouri Western (3-5), coming off two losses in Colorado, will begin MIAA play against the Mules (3-4) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday before traveling to Lincoln (2-4) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Whitaker’s welcome to the MIAA

Candi Whitaker and the Missouri Western women (5-1) will try to extend their winning streak to six and seven games on the UCM-Lincoln trip this week.

The Griffons did got to five games courtesy of a buzzer-beater from Tamia Cunigan on Friday and the duo of Chris Wilson and Corbyn Cunningham on Saturday against Florida Southern. The two scored 37 points with 20 rebounds, helping the Griffons overcome a halftime deficit to continue the team’s winning ways.

“When they’re playing well, they’re so fun. It’s good basketball, good passing, inside-out, sharing the basketball,” Whitaker said. “When they’re playing well, they’re really fun. I feel like with this team, if we’re in striking distance, I’m not worried. I think we have the ability to score in bunches and get stops.”

Brandon Zenner can be reached

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