COLUMBIA — Columbia College men's basketball coach Bob Burchard is used to winning 20 games.
The Cougars reached that total for the 18th time under Burchard’s guidance with a 86-75 victory over Illinois-Springfield on Saturday at Southwell Complex. Doing so against a American Midwest Conference rival pushed the Cougars (20-6) into second place in the AMC standings at 7-3. The Prairie Stars (15-7) dropped to third at 6-3.
“It was the biggest game of the year. Hopefully we’ll get into the top 25 now,” senior guard Joe Flanner said.
Illinois-Springfield came in ranked 22nd in the NAIA coaches poll. However, Columbia College had too much momentum, earning its seventh straight victory.
Senior guard Jason Ellis got things rolling, scoring nine of the Cougars' first 11 points. But despite the Cougars controlling much of the first half, the Prairie Stars controlled the highlights.
Trailing 30-19, Prairie Stars guard Jeremy Winters, who stands only 6 feet, 1 inch, scored on an alley-oop dunk that brought his teammates off their seats. Later, trailing 35-27, Prairie Stars guard Richard Oruche threw down a one-handed dunk off a missed shot.
“They are so athletic. They have Division I athleticism,” Burchard said. “The pace of the game was real tiresome.”
The Cougars shot a blistering 53 percent in the first half. They led 50-38 at halftime and moved ahead by 16 points early in the second half. Then the Prairie Stars made things interesting.
Led by Winters, who scored eight of his team-high 18 points in the second half, the Prairie Stars pulled within 77-75 with two minutes remaining.
“We knew they were gonna fight back,” senior center Christian Lewis said.
Lewis wouldn’t let his team give the game away, though, scoring five straight points to push the lead to 82-75. Lewis and Jason Ellis led all scorers with 19 points each. Clutch free throws by the Cougars put the game out of reach.
With just seconds remaining, the Prairie Stars' frustration boiled over resulting in a shoving match with technical fouls handed out to Illinois-Springfield senior guard Nick Livas and Cougars senior guard Terrell Turner.
“We had confidence. As seniors, we have never lost to them,” Lewis said.