Cougars win first game at NAIA tournament since 2001

Thursday, March 19, 2009 | 8:39 p.m. CDT; updated 1:36 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 24, 2009

KANSAS CITY — Columbia College coach Bob Burchard has seen this before.

Another one of his successful regular season teams was struggling at the NAIA national tournament.

The Cougars have qualified for the national tournament nine times in the past 10 seasons. However, the Cougars have won only two games in those nine appearances.

In the first half of the Cougars' first-round game Thursday against Lee (Tenn.) University at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, it seemed as if the Cougars were about to suffer a familiar fate.

“We weren’t aggressive. I was really disappointed in that,” Burchard said about his team in the first half. “We lost a lot of 50-50 balls in the first half.”

An abundance of turnovers, poor decisions, and bad shooting put the Cougars (27-7) in an early hole. In particular, the starting unit struggled in the first half.  

“The first five were a little nervous with the start of nationals,” senior Miroslav Lukic said. “It was way easier for us (the second unit) to play later on."

Despite shooting only 35 percent in the first half, the Cougars trailed just 32-27 at halftime.

“We were letting them dictate the game,” senior Christian Lewis said. “Coach told us we needed to play our game.”

After the dismal first half, the Cougars got back to playing their game. Just four minutes into the half, the Cougars took their first lead at 37-36.

The rest of the game was back and forth, with each team exchanging baskets for baskets. With just under four minutes to play, the Cougars trailed 63-58. As the shot-clock was about to expire, Cougars senior Terrell Turner threw up a desperation 3-pointer that missed, but a controversial foul was called on the play. Turner proceeded to hit 2-of-3 free throws.

That play proved to be the turning point. At that point, Lewis took over for the Cougars. With two of the Flames' centers fouled out, Lewis scored eight of the next 12 Cougars points en route to a 72-69 victory. Jason Ellis led Columbia College with 16 point and Lewis had 12. Stephen McClellan led Lee (26-8) with 21 points.

The win was the first for the Cougars men’s basketball team at the national tournament since 2001. Burchard said he was not worried about winning at the national tournament for his own personal ego.  

“The thing that means the most is us to do really well together,” Burchard said. “That’s the only thing that matters to me. I have no personal goals.”

Next up for the Cougars is a 6:15 p.m Friday game against the No. 4 ranked team in the country, Union (Tenn.). Burchard said he hasn’t seen any film of Union playing, but he is not overly concerned.

“We focus so much on what we do,” Burchard said. “They're big and they’re strong.”

Earlier in the week, Burchard said luck is a factor when it comes to winning at the national tournament. Under Burchard's guidance, many close games went the wrong way. Burchard hopes this will be the year luck is on the Cougars' side.

“This is the time of year when there are a lot of toss-up games,” Burchard said. “Hopefully you flip it enough, it will go your way.”

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