COLUMBIA — The players on the Columbia College men’s basketball team weren’t exactly giddy after losing the NAIA national title game Tuesday night in Kansas City. They didn’t want to hear people telling them “good game” or “nice season.” Not on that night, anyways.
The Cougars knew how close they were. They could picture cutting down the nets, holding the national championship trophy. It was supposed to be their night to celebrate.
But Rocky Mountain College took it all away from them, beating the Cougars 77-61.
“It kind of hurt watching it (the award ceremony),” senior Terrell Turner said Wednesday. “We felt like we were exactly where we wanted. We knew they were a good team and there for the first time just like us, but we wanted this.”
Columbia College coach Bob Burchard wasn’t quite as somber after the loss. He even led a “We are CC” chant with the crowd.
At the press conference after the game, Burchard spoke with confidence about his team and even smiled a bit. He had plenty to smile about.
In past seasons, Burchard was rarely relaxed when his team made the national tournament.
“When we got here last year, he (Burchard) was a mean guy ,” Turner said. “This year he was more easy-going. I think he knew we had a chance to do something special. We knew what to expect from him.”
Burchard said he made an effort to lighten the mood at the tournament. In the locker room after every tournament victory, he could be seen imitating a surfer. Throughout the Cougars late season run, Burchard kept telling his team “to keep riding the wave” they were on, and he decided to show off his wave riding skills after the games.
“I tried to relax as much as possible,” Burchard said. “When you have a great deal of respect for each other, communication gets really high. We preach to live in the moment and enjoy it, and that’s exactly what we did.”
During games this season, Burchard could usually be seen sitting on the bench with a smile on his face, no matter what was going on the court, good or bad. Yelling at his players was a rarity.
“Each team has its own personality. With a team as mature as this one, the communication style is different. Sometimes with young guys you have to get the point across differently,” said Burchard, who had six seniors playing for him this season. “Watching this group of guys come together was really special.”
Back in January, having a special season did not appear likely for the Cougars. Few, if any, in the Cougars' program dreamed an American Midwest Conference tournament title and a trip to the national championship was possible. The Cougars were below .500 in conference play, and didn't have any identity.
“We were able to look at ourselves in the mirror," Turner said, "and we knew we were better than that.”
There were no prototypical stars, and the team probably won’t be looked back on for any one individual. It will be remembered for being what Burchard called “the ultimate team.”
The season will also be remembered for one of Burchard’s biggest coaching decisions. After a loss to William Woods in January, Burchard split the team. The starters, the blue team, only played with each other during games, until the bench team, the white team,was put in the game.
After installing the system, the team came together. Each unit became more familiar with each other. It bred competition, with each group wanting to outdo the other. It bred success.
The move allowed the Cougars to win 17 of their last 18 before playing in the title game.
“As we all will look back on it, we will remember it was fun. We enjoyed every moment,” Turner said. “Everything we wanted to accomplish, we did.”
Burchard said this team will forever have a place in his heart.
“I really enjoyed being part of this whole scene. It was a fun group to coach, just fun to be a part of,” Burchard said. “The fairy tale is over.”