On paper, the American Midwest Conference women’s basketball tournament looks like a two-team race.
Columbia College (24-7, 14-0 AMC) and McKendree (Ill.) are the only teams with winning conference records. The Cougars’ 79-75 win at McKendree on Feb. 3 was their lone AMC victory decided by single digits.
The Bearcats (23-7, 12-2 AMC) were nearly as dominant, outscoring their opponents by an average of 17.7 in their wins.
Still, the rest of the AMC might have more incentive to win. The AMC Tournament champion receives an automatic bid into the 32-team NAIA Championship Tournament in Jackson, Tenn. The 16 at-large bids go to the highest ranked teams that did not automatically qualify.
The final NAIA poll will be released today, meaning the No. 22 Cougars are a virtual lock for the NAIA Championship Tournament. Cougars coach Mike Davis said he hopes the poll will put his team in a favorable position but isn’t taking the AMC Tournament for granted.
“I can attest to you, raters, you don’t know what they’re going to do,” he said. “The rater for our conference is (McKendree coach Melissa Ringhausen), and who knows how that will all go.”
The Cougars beat the Bearcats 76-60 on Saturday to earn their third consecutive AMC title. The win also gives the Cougars home-court advantage throughout the conference tournament. The higher seed hosts each tournament game.
The Cougars open against Harris-Stowe State at 7 tonight in The Arena of Southwell Complex. If the Cougars win, they will play the Hannibal-LaGrange/Missouri Baptist winner Friday. The championship game is Monday.
Davis said the AMC Tournament is his team’s chance to continue the momentum from its 16-game win streak and improve its stock nationally.
“The better you play (in the AMC tournament), if you do make the (NAIA) tournament, it improves your seeding,” Davis said. “That is as big an issue, who you play, as anything else. The higher seed you get, you get maybe a little easier first game and get a little confidence under your belt, and then who knows what happens.”
Lisa Kowalewski, the Cougars’ all-time leading scorer, said her team’s cohesiveness improves every day.
On Jan. 2, Charliss Ridley played her first game as a Cougar since transferring from Missouri. The Cougars are 18-2 with Ridley, but Kowalewski said everyone’s role changed with her arrival, and it took time to find the right chemistry.
“With each win we get a little bit more confident, but by no means are we putting anything by another team,” she said. “We have to come out strong and prove that we think we are the best team.”
Ridley’s 17.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game lead the Cougars.
Regarding the Bearcats’ odds of upsetting the Cougars, Davis said his team’s 6-1 record against McKendree indicates his team will be tough to beat.
“For it to be a great-big rivalry, they have to beat you a lot,” Davis said. “They haven’t beaten us much, so I’ll go ahead and get the dig in on that.”