ST. LOUIS — Bob Burchard, the Columbia College men’s basketball coach, has emphasized the strength of his team instead of touting individual greatness throughout the season.
Saturday’s American Midwest Conference Tournament final was a huge challenge to that notion.
The Cougars’ beat Missouri Baptist 79-65 at Muncy Gymnasium despite a controversial play that took their leading scorer out of the game. The win gives the No. 8 Cougars an automatic bid in the NAIA Championship Tournament, which begins March 24 in Kansas City.
Khamari Ballard, named the AMC’s Most Valuable Player after the game, had 20 points before being ejected with 1:17 left in the first half.
The Cougars (32-3) led 37-33 when Ballard was called for an intentional-flagrant foul while Andre Amos’ shot from the right baseline was in the air.
The officials initially said Ballard threw a punch at the Spartans’ Joe Rothweiler but later said it was a forearm. Rothweiler shoved Ballard in the chest after the whistle.
Ballard was automatically ejected. Rothweiler received a technical but was allowed to stay in the game.
The officials didn’t classify it as a fight, meaning Ballard will not be suspended for any NAIA National Tournament contests.
“I didn’t throw a forearm,” Ballard said. “He was stopping me in the middle of the lane, I tried to do a swim move and I came up and hit him (in the face).
“I wasn’t trying to do it. If I threw a punch, he wouldn’t be standing up, he’d be laying on the ground. The referees dealt with it the best way they could.”
The officials delayed the game for several minutes to make their decision. Burchard was visibly upset with the officials and Spartans coach Tony Tompkins.
Burchard said he has been frustrated that recent opponents have tried to get Ballard off his game by playing roughly.
“I’m sure (Ballard) is as well,” he said. “We talked about it before we came here. We knew that’s what was going to happen. They achieved an objective.”
Nahowan Saxon, a sophomore forward for the Cougars, said he was devastated when Ballard was ejected.
“Losing Khamari is a big loss, but I thought it was an opportunity for other players to step up,” he said. “I think it showed us what we can do.”
Saxon had 19 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
The No. 16 Spartans (26-6) shot 51.1 percent to the Cougars’ 36.7 percent, but the Cougars made up for the discrepancy with outstanding free-throw shooting and clutch 3-pointers. The Cougars made 35-of-37 free throws, and the Spartans hit 13-of-25.
Malcolm Mahogany’s 3-pointer with 12:35 left put the Cougars up 53-46 and stopped an 11-2 Spartan run. With 5:53 left, he hit another 3-pointer to extend the Cougars’ lead to 63-53. He finished with 17 points.
Craig Bryan held 6-fooot-8 Jason Kaplan, the Spartans’ leading scorer, to 10 points and made the Cougars’ first two field goals of the second half to extend their lead to 48-35.
Amos struggled shooting, making 1-of-9, but had a game-high four steals. He joined Ballard on the All-Conference team. Mahogany and Saxon were named honorable mention.
Amos, a senior guard, said he was thrilled to win the AMC Tournament.
“McKendree beat us by 20 last year (in the finals),” he said. “I didn’t forget that. (The Spartans) took our No. 1 seed, but we took the championship.”
Burchard said Ballard is a more than deserving MVP.
“He is probably one of the most dynamic players in the NAIA,” he said. “A lot of what has happened to him has been a part of what has happened to our team. I do think that is a team award.”