KANSAS CITY — Dwaun Stewart doesn’t get a lot of minutes for the Columbia College men’s basketball team, but there he was under the basket with an offensive rebound.
The Cougars (26-7, 18-4 American Midwest Conference) trailed by 10 with 10 minutes to play Thursday in the first round of the NAIA National Championship tournament. Our Lady of the Lake had them on the ropes.
While Columbia prefers to grind out baskets in a half-court offense, Our Lady of the Lake (25-5) likes to run. Eventually it ran the Cougars, the bracket’s 15-seed, out of the tournament, 74-68.
Our Lady of the Lake will face the winner of Rocky Mountain College and Talledaga College at the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium at 2:15 p.m. Friday.
Columbia hadn’t scored a field goal in five minutes when Stewart landed on the right ride of the paint. He took one dribble and spun to the middle, shoulders driving, eyes locked on the rim. If the Cougars couldn’t catch up with the Saints’ speed, coach Bob Burchard would empty the guards off his bench. Maybe one of them had an answer.
“They keep you out of your system,” Burchard said. “We like to move the ball around. They don’t let you do that.”
Columbia senior Tanner Sutton, a 3-point specialist, only had 12 points. Pep Stanciel had eight. Jobe Dillard had six.
“They’re good at what they do,” said Columbia junior forward Zach Rockers of the opposing Saints, who were unseeded.
Starting center John Meyer was confined to the bench in the first half after picking up two quick fouls. Malik Ray and Jeremy Nolen tried to replace him. Instead, the substitutions played into the Saints’ hands. Nolan couldn’t navigate out of their full-court press.
“We’re just not that active in the post area and we’re not as big and physical as we have been,” Burchard said. “When you take one of them out of the equation, we get even less.”
The Cougars practiced with seven players on defense leading up to the game to prepare for the Saints’ pressure, Burchard said.
But Our Lady of the Lake pushed the tempo even more. Two minutes into the second half, it took a lead on Terrence Berry’s stick-back layup. It never trailed again.
Midway through the half, Burchard turned to Stewart for an answer that wasn’t there.
“You’re playing at such a high level in the national tournament, your margin for error is very slim,” Rockers said. “I don’t think we played a bad game by any means. I just think we didn’t make some plays when we needed to.”
And when the Cougars needed a basket to stem the Saints’ scoring spree, Stewart’s shot was blocked. Then he was whistled for an offensive foul.
A minute later, Jeremy Hines nailed a 3-pointer for the Saints, who went up by 13, the largest margin of the game.
Stanciel hit a layup for the Cougars on the next possession with eight minutes to play. It was the first Columbia field goal since the 14-minute mark.
“There’s probably 10 minutes in that second half that I’d like to have back,” Sutton said.
The Cougars’ offense wasn’t the concern entering Thursday’s game, but keeping up with Saints was. Our Lady of the Lake averaged 88 points per game in the regular season, third-best in the country. Columbia held teams to 56 points a game, best in the nation.
Through the first half, the Cougars held the Saints to 31 points on 38 percent shooting. In the second half, those fortunes reversed.
By the time Columbia’s shooting touch came back — it shot 3-of-7 in the last two minutes — it had to foul to stop the clock. The Saints shot 28 free throws. Having allowed 18 more points than average, the Cougars’ defensive prowess looked washed out.
“In some critical stretches we got back on our heels, and that’s what they want,” Burchard said.
Nobody had an answer for that.
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.