KANSAS CITY — Heads that had looked nowhere but up for so long hung low outside the Columbia College locker room Saturday night.
Fans walked out slowly, their eyes red and puffy. When they spoke, they looked down somberly.
For the first time in exactly a year, somebody else was celebrating.
“Dejected,” center Jordan Dressler said to describe how he felt after a gut-wrenching 79-78 loss to Lousiana State University-Shreveport in the NAIA national tournament quarterfinal. "They beat us."
He said it almost like he couldn't believe it. Like he didn't want to believe that a team Columbia College has never played could shatter its perfect season. Like he didn't want to believe his monster game — 26 points, eight rebounds — wasn't enough.
LSU-Shreveport, the nation's top offensive team at 92.5 points per game, won in a fashion strikingly similar to the way Columbia College advanced to the quarterfinals in the first place. It fought back from a first-half deficit, stayed strong on defense and benefited from a controversial charging foul in the game's final seconds.
Columbia College had already heard enough of the whistle by the time Cougars guard Chantel Stanciel drove to the hoop with 12 seconds left, his team trailing by one. The Cougars had been called for 20 fouls — including three charges — compared to just 12 for LSU Shreveport.
But that didn't stop all on the Cougars side from erupting in surprise when the referee pointed down the floor after Stanciel collided with his defender, knocking him to the floor.
"I feel so bad for Pep (Stanciel)," said guard Tanner Sutton, who had 15 points. "That was a bad call and I think everyone saw it."
Columbia College coach Bob Burchard said he needed to wait to see video of the play. But as it happened he waved his hands at the refs in frustration, notecards peeking through his knuckles like little white flags.
"They must have read our articles from last night, because man, I don't know how many charges there were in this game," Burchard said afterward, before shifting his tune to its more usual positive manner.
"This has been the most amazing ride of my career."
The Cougars led by as many as 11 in the first half and were up 42-36 at the break, but couldn't answer LSU-Shreveport's dynamic tandem of Brandon Davis and Rodney Milum in the second half. Davis, a forward, and Milum, a guard, scored 28 of their combined 51 points after halftime, Milum hitting five 3-pointers.
It was Davis who gave LSU-Shreveport its first lead with a transition layup with ten minutes to play that made the score 61-60. He hit two free throws with 1:51 left to extend the lead to three.
Columbia College had a chance after LSU-Shreveport's Tevin Hall hit one of two free throws following the Stanciel charge. With the score 77-75, Cougars guard Wendell Crowder missed a 3-pointer from the left wing with five seconds left.
"It happened exactly the way we drew it up," Burchard said. "That's Wendell's shot. That's where he converts. Looked pretty good, just didn't go in."
"Every time I take a shot I think it's going in," Crowder said. "This time it didn't go in."
"It didn't go in," he said again.
Columbia College fouled Hall again on the rebound, and the guard hit both free throws to extend the lead to four and seal the win.
On the ensuing inbound, Tanner Sutton put up a half-court shot anyway. In a sick twist of fate for the Cougars, the team that's had so much go right for so long, it swished right in.
Sutton didn't even see it.
"I thought 'Well, here goes the last shot of this season,'" he said. "I knew it was going to be the last shot. I just threw it up, didn't even look at it, and walked to the bench."