Cougars determined

Tuesday, March 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:41 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The American Midwest Conference season’s conclusion was anticlimactic. Fortunately, the conference tournament guarantees an undisputed champion.

The Columbia College and Missouri Baptist men’s basketball teams accumulated 10-2 AMC records, and the teams split their head-to-head matchups. The No. 5 Cougars beat the No. 21 Spartans 84-71 on Feb. 7 in St. Louis. On Thursday, the Spartans defeated the Cougars 84-73 in Columbia.

Although the Cougars and Spartans are AMC co-champions, the Spartans are the conference tournament’s No. 1 seed based on their superior road record. The top seed gives the Spartans a first-round bye and home-court advantage throughout the tournament.

Bob Burchard, the Cougars’ coach, said he hopes his team takes Thursday’s loss as a challenge.

“You hope it spurs you on,” he said. “You just never know until you see a team react.”

The Cougars (29-3) face Harris-Stowe State in the first round today at 7 p.m. in the Arena of Southwell Complex.

Khamari Ballard, the Cougars’ leading scorer, said losing to the Spartans and not winning the AMC outright make the conference tournament even more important to his team.

“We do have something to prove,” he said. “We didn’t really want to lose at home, and that was the first one. So we’re going to take that as motivation, and we’re going to roll with it.”

If the Cougars win tonight, they will play the winner of McKendree (Ill.) and Williams Baptist (Ark.) on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Columbia. In their previous meeting Feb. 21, the Cougars beat McKendree at home 83-79, but the No. 25 Bearcats defeated the Cougars 73-65 on Jan. 29 in Lebanon, Ill.

The AMC Tournament title game will be played Saturday at 7 p.m. The higher seed will host the contest.

The champion receives an automatic bid in the 32-team NAIA Championship Tournament in Kansas City that starts March 24. Fifteen at-large bids are given to the highest ranked teams without automatic bids, meaning the Cougars are likely in the national tournament regardless of the conference tournament’s outcome. The final NAIA poll will be released today.

Although the AMC Tournament seems like a perfect opportunity for the Cougars to improve their seeding in the NAIA Championship Tournament, Burchard said he hopes his team isn’t thinking that far ahead.

“We are just playing basketball as long as they let us play,” he said. “We’ll work our way through the (AMC) tournament and hopefully they’ll invite us to play (in the NAIA Championship Tournament). Thinking about seeds and all that kind of stuff is more for ‘Bracketology’ or whatever.”

The AMC Tournament is also a chance for the Cougars to get their normally potent offense back on track. The Cougars beat Hannibal-LaGrange 73-64 on Saturday despite shooting 33.3 percent.

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