COLUMBIA — It's not a game to be taken lightly for the Columbia College women's basketball team, even if it is two games ahead of McKendree in the conference standings.
Cougars coach Mike Davis puts a lot of weight on it.
No. 10 Columbia College (22-2, 10-0 in the AMC)
at No. 16 McKendree (18-5, 8-2)
WHEN: 5:30 p.m.
WHERE: Melvin Price Convocation Center, Lebanon, Ill.
"It's our most important game of the year," he said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Well, he kinda puts a lot of weight on it.
"It's our most important game of the year, because it's our next one," he chuckled.
That, by the way, has basically been the theme this year for Davis and the Cougars, No. 10 in the NAIA's latest rankings. Never ask him to look more than one game ahead.
However, Thursday's game at McKendree, No. 16 in the NAIA, is not one the Cougars can overlook. With five games left in the regular season, a victory for McKendree would put the Bearcats well within striking distance of the No. 1 seed in the American Midwest Conference tournament.
The rewards of a Columbia College victory are hard to ignore, though.
"We're two games ahead of them in the conference. We win, and we all but take them out of the race, and it puts us in the driver's seat," Davis said.
And being in the driver's seat makes hitting that cruise control button too tempting to ignore. But the Cougars are wary of that tease.
"I don't know about the cruise control thing," Davis said. "We put cruise control on earlier this year, and we hit a huge speed bump in Nebraska (losing to Peru State 65-63). We can't let off the gas right now."
The Cougars will need to floor it to beat the Bearcats.
"McKendree is a good team," Davis said. "They're a different team on and off their court. They're extremely tough at home, so we're going to have to show up and play them hard."
Columbia College took the first game in the season series with McKendree, beating them 83-59 in Columbia, making the Cougars a prime target for revenge. But the Cougars have reason to get back at McKendree, too.
Last year, the Cougars went 14-2 in conference play. One of those losses was against McKendree (the other to William Woods, also currently two games behind the Cougars). If that wasn't enough, the Bearcats eliminated the Cougars in the conference tournament semifinals to end the regular season for Columbia College.
In short, if the Cougars leave any room for the Bearcats to take control of the conference, they'll take it.
But in a way, Davis is treating this game like any other.
"Whether it's Stephens' (Saturday's opponent), McKendree or William Woods," he said. "We have to prepare for each game, because each game counts."