COLUMBIA — There is no shortage of motivation for the Columbia College women’s basketball team entering Saturday’s American Midwest Conference tournament championship at No. 1 McKendree.
Winning the game would give the No. 3-seeded Cougars (17-14) an automatic berth in the NAIA National Tournament in Jackson, Tenn. With virtually no chance of securing an at-large bid to the national tournament, a loss would end the Cougars’ season.
“This is our final shot,” guard Whitney Widaman said. “We all have to lay it on the line.”
A rivalry between the two teams has developed over the past two seasons, which only adds to the level of motivation among the Columbia College players going into the game.
It started last season during a game on Jan. 13, 2007, at McKendree. Widaman said McKendree coach Melissa Ringhausen kicked her in the stomach after she landed near the bleachers after a shot.
“I have only been here for a year and it is the team that I would like to beat the most,” guard Nancy Thonrnsberry said. “I don’t like them very much.”
Coach Mike Davis, however, denied that there is a rivalry between his team and McKendree. Columbia College leads the all-time series between the teams 12-6.
“We’ve beaten them too many times for it to be a rivalry,” Davis said. “We are playing for another game. That’s what we’re playing for.”
McKendree won both of the previous games between the teams this season.
In the second game, Columbia College led by 11 points at the half before McKendree came back in the second half for a 67-61 win. Despite squandering the lead, the close loss gave Columbia College players confidence that they can compete with McKendree, especially after a 20-point loss earlier in the season.
“I feel like we’re the better team,” Thornsberry said. “It’s a team that we should have beaten and I think that we are all ready to come back and get a win.”
Facing McKendree will be a big change for the Cougars from their semifinal opponent, Harris-Stowe.
While Harris-Stowe runs most of its plays through All-American candidate Chanel Ross, McKendree has a much more balanced attack. Three McKendree players average double figures in scoring, and eight players average at least 5 points per game.
McKendree also has a size advantage against Columbia College, with 6-foot-2-inch Suzy Gurler, 6-foot-1-inch Emily Best, and 6-foot Heather Elders all in the starting lineup.
“They are a little bit bigger than we are,” Thornsberry said. “I think that we have to make sure we’re strong in the post.”
Despite the importance of the game, Thornsberry said that her teammates and she are not feeling the pressure.
“I think it’s more fun than pressure,” Thornsberry said. “I think we are all looking forward to it. If you look at us during practice, no one seems to be nervous. Everybody is up and excited.”
Playing in the conference championship is nothing new to Columbia College. Saturday’s championship game with be Columbia College’s sixth in the program’s seven-year history. The Cougars have won three conference tournament championships; the past two came against McKendree.
Columbia College lost last season’s conference championship game to Harris-Stowe.