For 35 minutes Sunday afternoon, the Columbia College men’s basketball team played its best basketball of the season.
For 5 minutes, it played some of its worst.
The Cougars blew a double-digit lead in the waning minutes of the second half, allowing Missouri Valley College to steal an 81-74 win at the Arena of Southwell Complex.
With 4:05 left and the Cougars clinging to a 67-65 lead, Missouri Valley forward Mike Atkinson converted on a layup and was fouled. He made the free throw to give the Vikings (9-3) their first lead since the game’s opening minutes.
On Missouri Valley’s next possession, guard Ramone Powell hit a 3-pointer to make it 71-67 with 3:28 left. The Cougars (5-8) didn’t recover.
Powell led all scorers with 30 points, including 13 in a six-minute stretch midway through the second half to bring the Vikings back from a 13-point deficit.
“They were able to find the open guy and they got to the line,” said junior guard Terrence Smith, who finished with 28 points and shot 6-of-11 from three-point range. “I think they were in the double bonus with about 10 minutes left in the second half, so in that case, you’ve just got to just move your feet and keep them off the line.”
At halftime, the Cougars appeared to be in good shape. They shot 50 percent from the field (nearly 60 percent from 3-point range) and ended the first half with a seven-point lead after Craig Bryan tipped in a basket at the buzzer.
In the second half, it looked to be more of the same, until a Cougars’ letdown opened the door to a Vikings rally. The Cougars twice missed the front-end of 1-and-1 situations in the final five minutes that would have padded their small lead.
“I think (in a game like this) it almost comes down to the flip of a coin,” sophomore guard Andreas Jakobsen said. “If you look at the stats, our free throws didn’t fall, and they made their free throws. They shot 32 free throw, we only shot 15. When it comes down to it, that’s probably what hurt us.”
Cougars forward Nahowan Saxon, who leads the team in rebounds and is second in points-per-game, was limited to just more than four minutes of playing time. It is the second straight game Saxon has missed considerable minutes after straining his groin in warm-ups before Saturday’s win against Concordia Seminary.
Despite the loss, Columbia College coach Bob Burchard said what he saw pleased him. In the past weeks, the coach has struggled to find a consistent starting lineup, but might have finally found one after Sunday’s game.
For much of the first half, the Cougars easily broke a Missouri Valley half-court press, passing out of jams and consistently finding the open man for easy baskets.
Little-used forwards Craig Bryan and Greg Cannon also provided a strong post presence, teaming with Smith, and guards Jakobsen and Ryan Steinhoff.
“I really liked it,” Burchard said. “Craig Bryan gave us some nice minutes in there. It’s really nice to see that. They played with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Columbia College has a chance to end 2004 with a win. The Cougars play Maryville at home on Dec. 16 before taking a two-week break for Christmas vacation.