KANSAS CITY — Sometimes jumping a hurdle feels like climbing a mountain.
Over the past 20 years, the Columbia College men’s basketball team couldn’t quite clear the hurdle of making it to the Elite 8 of the NAIA tournament. It was the summit the Cougars could not quite surmount.
Until Friday night, that is.
The Cougars (28-6) beat Union (Tenn.) on Friday 84-64 in the Sweet 16 of the NAIA national tournament at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. The win puts the Cougars in the Elite 8 for the first time in the program's history.
“Words can’t describe it, they really can’t,” senior Terrell Turner said. “We talked about it in the locker room, and we were like, ‘We can do this, we can be the first team to make it.'”
Heading into Friday’s game, it appeared the Cougars would be thwarted again. Union (30-4) entered the game ranked No. 4 in the country and winners of 15 of their past 16 games.
But the Cougars weren’t doing so badly themselves. They had won 14 of their past 15 games, including an upset of then-No. 5 McKendree in the American Midwest Conference tournament. After a sluggish start Thursday in their opening round game against Lee University, the Cougars had other plans for Friday’s game.
The game couldn’t have started much better for Columbia College. They hit seven of their first eight shots, running out to an early 12-0 lead. The crowd was clearly throwing its support behind the coach Bob Burchard's team.
“Everything was falling. When you get in a zone like that, it feels like everything is falling,” senior Brett Hoskins said. “We came out like we know we can play.”
Hoskins scored seven of the Cougars first nine points. Just five minutes into the game, senior Christian Lewis was called for his second personal foul of the game. At that point, it seemed like the momentum might swing to the Bulldogs.
The Cougars never wavered. Shot after shot continued to fall through the rim.
“I thought our ball movement was really strong,” coach Bob Burchard said. “It was nice to get off to a start like that.”
After leading by as many as 19 in the first half, the Cougars led 38-25 at halftime.
The second half was much of the same. Turner smothered the Bulldogs' regular season leading-scorer, Matt Neaville. Turner forced Neaville into a number of shots. Burchard mentioned Neaville is a candidate for NAIA Player of the Year.
“That’s what we count on every game from him,” Hoskins said. “He’s always on the best player.”
The Bulldogs could never trim the deficit to single-digits in the second half. Clutch free-throw shooting by the Cougars put the game out of reach. Senior Jason Ellis led the Cougars with 23 points and Hoskins scored 18.
Despite the big win, the Cougars must wait to celebrate. They play Westminster College (Utah) in the quarterfinals at 6 p.m. Saturday at Municipal Auditorium.
While the Cougars are now in uncharted territory, Burchard said he is happy with his team no matter what happens the rest of the way. His team has finally jumped that hurdle that has eluded him over the years.
“Our only goal is to be who are at the highest level,” Burchard said. “That never changes. We’re happy. But we would’ve been happy if things didn’t go our way.”