KANSAS CITY — On Jan. 22, making a deep run in the NAIA national tournament was the farthest thing from Columbia College men’s basketball coach Bob Burchard’s mind.
That day his team lost a blowout to a sub-par William Woods team. The Cougars were at a crossroads after losing four of six games.
Soon after, Burchard made a change. He implemented his “blue/white team” system. When he substitutes players into games, he subs all five players at a time. The starters are called the “blue team” and the bench team was called the “white team."
It has paid off.
The Cougars have reeled off 16 wins in their past 17 games, including three in a row at the NAIA national tournament.
The Cougars beat Westminster (Utah) 50-47 in the quarterfinals of the NAIA national tournament Saturday night at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City.
The win gives the Cougars something that two months ago seemed impossible — a trip to the NAIA Final Four.
“We made history. I’m at a loss for words,” Cougars senior Jason Ellis said after the game.
Before Saturday night's contest, the Cougars and Griffins had never played in the Elite Eight of the NAIA national tournament.
And on the offensive end, it showed.
The Cougars shot 31 percent in the first half of their quarterfinal game, and the Griffins shot 47 percent, but could only muster 21 points in the half. The Cougars led 22-21 at the break.
“Fatigue and pressure has a little bit to do with it,” Burchard said about the teams’ offensive woes in their third game in three days. “I think both teams really looked tired in the first half.”
Contrary to the hot start the Cougars had in the Sweet 16 against Union (Tenn.), the Cougars couldn’t get much going on offense early on. On a number of possessions, the Cougars had to force shots as the shot-clock was about to expire.
Because of foul trouble, the Cougars played much of the game without senior Christian Lewis, their regular season leading-scorer. Lewis played just 10 minutes, and fouled out late in the second half.
“It was tough not being able to get out there and help,” Lewis said. “I tried to do everything I could do from the bench. I cheered and gave whatever pointers I could.”
Ellis scored the Cougars final 11 points and finished with 17 points, and senior Brett Hoskins scored 12.
“What he’s done is quite remarkable. He’s doing right now what we’ve been working towards,” Burchard said of Ellis. “He was really fresh at the end.”
Lewis called Ellis the team's “MVP” after his late game heroics.
The 50 points is the lowest point total for the winning team since the 1997 championships.
While the Cougars did celebrate after the game, it was a bit more subdued than the night before. The team's third win in three days might have taken its toll. Luckily for the Cougars, they have an off day on Sunday to rest up for their 8:50 semifinal game Monday in Kansas City.
The Cougars are happy they have made it to the Final Four, but they don’t want their journey to end until Tuesday night’s championship game.
Lewis said, “It feels great, we made history, but we want to keep going,”