Recently, NCAA men’s basketball teams such as St. Joseph’s and Gonzaga have improved the strength of their nonconference schedules to compensate for their relatively weak conferences.
The Columbia College women’s basketball team used a similar strategy this season. The No. 17 Cougars (27-7) have dominated the American Midwest Conference in the program’s three-year history but lost in the first round of the NAIA Championship Tournament in 2002 and 2003.
The third-seeded Cougars play sixth-seeded Wayland Baptist (Texas) at 6:15 p.m. today in the first round of the national tournament in Jackson, Tenn. The tournament is composed of four eight-team brackets. Half of the teams completed first-round play Wednesday, and the rest play today. All tournament games will be at Oman Arena.
Coach Mike Davis said the Cougars were beaten up in their previous trips to Jackson, but he said this year’s team is better prepared to handle physical play.
“Our nonconference schedule was murderous,” he said.
The Cougars were 8-7 before starting their 19-game winning streak. They played six games against nonconference teams that qualified for the national tournament, including a 101-60 loss at No. 1 Oklahoma City on Nov. 21. They also won three against No. 22 McKendree (Ill.) in AMC play.
“We’ve really seen a good caliber of teams this year,” Davis said. “We don’t have any excuses. If we come down (to Jackson) and don’t play well, it’s our own doing.”
Davis also said this year’s squad has the personnel to compete with more physical teams. Charliss Ridley, the AMC’s Most Valuable Player, has given the Cougars an inside scoring and rebounding presence they lacked the previous two seasons. The Cougars are 21-2 since Ridley made her Columbia College debut Jan. 2.
Mindy Mitchem is the nation’s second-leading shot blocker, averaging 3.7 per game.
Freshman forward LeAnn Fossum, an honorable mention All-Conference selection, gives the Cougars an unusual combination of aggressive rebounding and speed in the open court. Her 59.8 percent shooting leads the team, and she is second in rebounding with 5.3 per game.
“Coming off the bench, when you have a Tilly Payne and Rachel Davis coming in, you have some more height coming in behind those girls,” Davis said. “We feel like we’re built more for (the national tournament), but we’re going to find out.”
Wayland Baptist (18-10), unlike the Cougars, comes from arguably the nation’s top conference. Seven of the Sooner Athletic Conference’s 10 teams made the national tournament; the Cougars and McKendree are the lone AMC representatives. Wayland Baptist finished third in its conference behind the nation’s top two teams, Oklahoma City and Southern Nazarene.
“They’re used to seeing good teams,” Davis said. “They’re similar to us in size, but I think they have some guard play that does a really good job, and we’re going to have our hands full. It’s the best opening-round matchup we’ve had in our three years here, I’ll say that.”
If the Cougars win today, they will play the winner of Houston-Baptist and Montana-Western at 9:45 p.m. Friday. The championship game is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, meaning the Cougars must win fives games in six days to earn the NAIA title.