COLUMBIA — Beating a conference opponent three times in the same season is a tall order.
The Columbia College men’s basketball team did just that Saturday night at Southwell Complex, beating Illinois-Springfield 84-79 in the semifinals of the American Midwest Conference Tournament.
“We know in our mind that we have their number,” Cougars senior Terrell Turner said. “We knew if we came out and played hard, there was no way they could beat us”
In the first half, the Prairie Starts (21-9) scored 10 3-pointers, including four by senior Nick Livas. Despite the onslaught of 3’s, the Cougars (25-7) fought back, hitting seven in the half. The Cougars led 44-43 at the break.
“The game was played at such a (high) rate,” Cougars coach Bob Burchard said. “Between today and Thursday’s game, we must have the best shooting gym in America.”
With a NAIA national tournament at-large bid a possibility, both teams played with a sense of urgency. Tied in the regular season conference standings, both teams knew a win would probably put them in the national tournament.
“It solves questions,” a relieved Burchard said.
Burchard decided to go to a 3-2 zone defense at the end of the first half. The move appeared to slow down the game, something Burchard thought worked to the Cougars' advantage.
“Things change throughout the year,” Burchard said. “They haven’t seen that all year from us.”
The Cougars never trailed in the second half. Senior Jason Ellis led the Cougars with 17 points, and Lewis added 14. The Prairie Stars were led by Livas, who had 28 points.
The Cougars now play McKendree (28-4) at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the AMC Tournament championship at McKendree. It will be the third time the two teams face each other this season. The Cougars seniors have yet to beat McKendree, something they didn’t forget when playing Illinois-Springfield.
“It was on my mind the whole time,” Turner said.