By DAVID UBBEN
COLUMBIA — Despite being in the middle of one its best defensive performances of the season, the Columbia College men’s basketball team needed a spark on offense. How fitting, that the offensive spark started on the defensive end.
After seeing teammate Miroslav Lukic come away with a steal, Cougars freshman Jake Alexander sprinted to the other end of the floor. Taking advantage of the two-on-one opportunity, Lukic hit Alexander with a perfect bounce pass and Alexander finished the play with a thunderous slam to put the Cougars up six points with 11:38 to play. He hung on the rim with one hand as his teammates celebrated on the bench.
The No. 23 Cougars (21-6, 9-2 American Midwest Conference) used Alexander’s spark to ignite a 14-5 run en route to a 75-60 win over Illinois-Springfield (17-9. 7-3 AMC) Thursday night at The Arena in the Southwell Complex.
“When I turned around, and saw the whole team jumping up and down and then the other team called a time out, I think we just knew that was a big turning point, a big momentum swing for us,” Alexander said.
The Cougars, who came into Thursday’s game as the second-best scoring defense in the NAIA, held Illinois-Springfield to just 2-of-21 shooting from beyond the arc. They also forced the Prairie Stars’ Jacob Mottler to a 2-of-14 night shooitng, resulting in just six points.
“Coach (Bob Burchard) set a challenge for us before the game about keeping them at about 50 or less,” the Cougars’ Trae Hall said. “Even though they scored 60, we did a good enough job to win, and made it pretty convincing with our defense.”
Illinois-Springfield’s Ralph Woodson did his best to stop that from happening, as the burly big man poured in 26 points and gathered in 11 rebounds for a double-double, giving the Cougars’ defense fits from start to finish.
“We just tried to make sure we started guarding him before he started posting us up,” the Cougars’ Christian Lewis said. “We had to get him on a side and work him around a little bit. It was pretty tough, but I think we did pretty good.”
Burchard has been preaching the importance of easy buckets to his team heavily for the past few weeks. And for the Cougars, it doesn’t get much easier than at the free-throw line. The NAIA’s most accurate free-throw shooting team, the Cougars went to the line 25 times in the second half, hitting 22foul shots. Despite going without a field goal for nearly five of the game’s final eight minutes, Columbia College matched Illinois-Springfield’s nine points in that span, all from the charity stripe.
“A big part of that is how you play the game,” Burchard said. “If you’re not attacking, if you’re not being aggressive, then that’s not going to happen, so I thought that was critical for us.”
Terrell Turner led the Cougars with 16 points, and Hall and Lewis chipped in 10 each.
For the Cougars, the win sets up a mammoth matchup with No. 12 McKendree (Ill.) on Thursday, in a winner-take-all contest for the American Midwest Conference crown.
“Our goal to win the conference is pretty attainable,” Hall said. “It’s obviously a big game, and I know everybody will come out ready to play and hopefully we can get the win and win the conference.”