FULTON — Marquette Murrell says that when he first got to Columbia College two years ago, head coach Bob Burchard was a better free-throw shooter than he was.
So he would stay late after every practice with Burchard, 30 minutes every day, trying to perfect his form. The going was slow at first.
“We were working on basic stuff like just how to hold the ball,” Burchard said.
Murrell hit two free throws in the final minute of Columbia College’s 74-69 win over Williams Woods University in Fulton on Saturday to seal the Cougars’ most dramatic game this calendar year and a perfect 30-0 regular season.
"Those were probably the biggest free throws of my career," he said "But coming through in the clutch for my team means more than anything."
The Cougars are used to taking foul shots under pressure. At practices, Burchard makes his team attempt ten in a row, and then run a lap for every missed shot.
“If we don’t make them, we get punished,” said senior forward Jordan Dressler. “We have to run.”
Burchard uses this negative reinforcement to make a point clear — fouls shots are often the difference down the stretch in close games.
Call it a lesson learned. The Cougars went 9-10 from the line in the last five minutes Saturday.
Columbia College's smart, energized play was sparked by the large number of Cougars fans at the William Woods gym.
Dressler, who had a game-high 19 points, called the atmosphere “crazy,” and said there were times the crowd was so loud he couldn’t hear. More than once chanting matches broke out in the stands, with Columbia College fans shouting "C-C!" and William Woods fans yelling "W-W!"
“Brings me back to high school days, when we played Hickman,” said Dressler, a Rock Bridge High School alum.
Burchard likes to talk a lot about crowds, and for good reason. For one, their size and liveliness can greatly impact a game. Secondly, Columbia College hasn’t always had them.
“We’ve had some really good teams that didn’t quite have this following,” said Burchard, who attributes the increase in support to the number of local players the Cougars have and their No. 1 NAIA ranking.
“Away games are just like home games for us because of the way our crowd travels,” Murrell said. “You would think we were a bigger school or something.”
Of course, Columbia College is not a big school. But the Cougars have done big things this basketball season. At 30-0, it is the first time a Columbia College basketball team has finished an undefeated regular season. The Cougars are the first NAIA team to accomplish the feat since 2007-2008.
After the final buzzer Saturday, the Cougars ran across the gym and celebrated in front of their fans. Murrell, Griffin, Dressler and the rest of them held up one finger and lifted it towards the ceiling.
The team hugged, cheered and danced in front of the people who supported them on their way to the top. Burchard even stepped in front of his players, smiled and took a bow.
“It’s pretty sweet,” Dressler said. “It’s pretty sweet.”
Columbia College will host a first-round AMC Tournament game Thursday at Southwell Arena. The Cougars will face the winner of Tuesday's eighth vs. ninth seed play-in game.