COLUMBIA — This is when it really counts.
The Columbia College men’s basketball team knocked off No. 4 ranked McKendree 65-54 on Tuesday night to claim the American Midwest Conference tournament title. The victory earned the Cougars an automatic bid to the NAIA National Tournament on March 18 through 24 in Kansas City.
Riding a nation-best 21-game winning streak and playing at home, the Bearcats were clearly the favorites heading into Tuesday night’s game. However, despite losing to the Bearcats five consecutive times the past two seasons, the Cougars said they could pull off the upset.
For the seniors, it was a relief to finally beat rival McKendree for the first time in their careers.
“Man, I don’t know how to describe it in words,” Cougars senior Christian Lewis said. “We were going crazy in the locker room afterwards.”
After the game, the players celebrated with each other and the many fans that made the trip to McKendree on a free bus ride the Cougars provided. The Cougars took pictures and even got to do what they’ve always wanted — cut down the nets.
The only problem was Cougars senior Miroslav Lukic got a little carried away.
“Miroslav got a little too excited and cut the first net all down by himself,” Lewis said, laughing hysterically. “The rest of us got to do the second one together.”
The Cougars clinched their first AMC title since 2004.
Cougars coach Bob Burchard said he was pleased with the way his team handled the pressure on the road.
“It was a really solid game for us from start to finish,” Burchard said. “We had a great tournament.”
The Cougars never trailed in the championship game, leading 30-24 at the half on 57 percent shooting. Senior Jason Ellis led the Cougars with 13 points and senior Brett Hoskins scored 12.
Burchard said one of the keys was senior Terrell Turner’s defense on the Bearcats' leading scorer, Eric Palm. Averaging 20 points per game entering Tuesday's game, Turner held Palm to 10 points.
The tournament bracket for the NAIA national tournament will be released Wednesday.
“I don’t think I’ve let it sink in yet,” Lewis said. “We’ve got a ton of confidence now.”