The Columbia College men’s basketball team may have snuck in the NAIA tournament’s backdoor, but that hasn’t diminished the Cougars’ excitement about playing for a national championship.
“That’s the reason why we play, just to make it to the national tournament,” junior forward Nahowan Saxon said. “It’s a good opportunity for us and hopefully we can take advantage.”
The NAIA tournament bracket was announced Wednesday and the Cougars (21-13), who lost to McKendree (Ill.) in the semifinals of the American Midwest Conference Tournament on Saturday, received an at-large bid.
“It’s kind of weird because after losing Saturday, we’re like, ‘OK, we’re done,’” senior forward Craig Bryan said.
Columbia College’s late season disappointments did not elude the tournament selection committee. The Cougars were matched up against Mountain State (29-3), the defending national champion and No. 1 seed.
The Cougars’ position also suffered because an NAIA rule prevents teams that have played each other in the regular season from playing in the first round of the tournament.
Voorhees (S.C.) (14-16) played Mountain State during the regular season and Columbia College played Voorhees’ first-round opponent, No. 2 Southern Polytechnic (Ga.) (31-3). The lower-seeded teams were likely flip-flopped to abide by NAIA rules.
“I knew we’d be down in the grouping, and probably rightfully so.” coach Bob Burchard said. “I didn’t think we’d be quite that low.”
As a result of Saturday’s loss, Columbia College’s tournament hopes rested on conference championship games played Tuesday night.
In St. Louis, McKendree lost in the AMC tournament championship 86-65 to Missouri Baptist, and in Jackson, Tenn., Union University rallied to beat Lyon College 76-75 for the TranSouth Conference title.
Missouri Baptist and Union secured automatic bids, leaving two at-large bids available for the Cougars.
“It feels good,” Edwards said. “Now we have to take the approach that we have to do something and represent ourselves.”
The NAIA invitation is the seventh straight for Columbia College. Last season, the Cougars were ranked No. 7 and among the tournament favorites, but were upset 81-48 by Oklahoma City in the first round. This year, the Cougars’ role is reversed.
“We’re going to try to do to whoever we play what got done to us,” Edwards said. “We were the top seed and we got knocked off.”
Despite losing three of their past six games, the Cougars say they are capable of making some noise in the tournament.
“This time of the month anything can happen,” Edwards said. “We already feel like we can play; we’re playing our best basketball. I think it’s a question of people playing with us.”
n The Columbia College women’s basketball team, ranked No. 11 in the final NAIA poll, will play Lee (Tenn.) University in the opening round of its national tournament. The Cougars (30-5), who won the AMC title Monday, will play at 9 a.m. March 17 in Jackson, Tenn.