KANSAS CITY -- The Lewis-Clark State Warriors’ greatest weapon became its Achilles' heel.
The No. 7-seeded Warriors had beaten back the No. 2-seeded Columbia Cougars, building a 15-point lead in the second half, but a blisteringly cold shooting streak buried the Warriors as the Cougars won 71-59 in Round 1 of the NAIA tournament.
The Warriors shot 7 of 45 from the 3-point line in the loss.
“It’s hard to get too complicated about it,” Warriors coach Brandon Rinta said. “We went cold. We couldn’t hit a shot. We wanted to get the ball inside but they were just packing it in. I’ve always been of the mindset when you’re open, shoot it. When you’re open shoot it. Could we have tried to bounce it at the rim a little more? Yeah, but I have faith in our shooters. I do. Even when they miss, the next one is going in. We went unbelievably cold.”
With about 17 minutes left in the game, Cougars coach Bob Burchard shifted to a 2-3 zone. Doug McDaniels, LCSC’s leading scorer, forced him to. The Warriors had built a 15-point lead and looked to be running away with the game.
"I didn't even realize we'd gotten down by 15 points in the second half,” Burchard said. “We're a very intelligent and experienced team, so I knew we could come back. We didn't show any panic."
Rinta’s squad, one full of shooters, believed their fortunes would shift. The Warriors, after all, had made the fourth most 3-pointers in the nation and on average shot 36 percent from the line. Rinta empowered his team to shoot and, uncharacteristically, the Warriors missed. And missed. And missed.
The Warriors and 3-pointers went together like basket and ball -- until Wednesday.
“They wanted to (drive the ball inside), as well, but we’re playing basketball with eight shooters,” Rinta said. “That’s who they are. That’s their mindset. They know we have to get it inside. They’re not going to pass up open 3s. That was the boat we ended up being in. If we were really going to fight to get shots inside, we were going to have to pass up open 3s.”
The Warriors went down shooting. The Cougars made a 15-0 run in the second half, holding LCSC scoreless for seven minutes. The Warriors never responded.
As the team cleared out of Locker Room 2, collecting a cardboard sign with the Warriors’ insignia as souvenir, Rinta waited in the hallway of Municipal Auditorium. He made sure he embraced each player, and reminded them of the unique season they had.
“The last game of the year is not fun,” he said. “I told them I was proud of them. I think a lot people doubted this team, how much we lost off of last year’s team, how much we lost at the beginning of the season and during the season. These guys just continued to believe in each other and believe in what they were doing and had different guys step up. That’s why we were able to make it here.”
Early on, both teams worked out kinks, trying to adjust to each other’s style of play. On the NAIA’s biggest stage, both squads need 20 minutes to really unleash.
"I know it sounds like every other coach here, but the first game is always the hardest,” Burchard said. “You have to get on the floor and get some playing time in. However, we've got some experienced guys who know how to play. Honestly, I'm breathing a sigh of relief just to see my guys again. We didn't end the year playing the way we wanted and it wasn't the team I'm used to seeing. But I started seeing that team again today."
Lewis-Clark’s superior offensive rebounding gave the Warriors the second chances they needed to get buckets and extend a lead. The Warriors used a balanced scoring effort, led by Derrick White’s nine points to hold a first-half advantage.
Columbia’s Nic Reynolds and Jesse Brown combined for 17 points to lead the Cougars.
Reynolds finished the game with 26 points and Brown added 12 as the only scorers in double figures for the Cougars.
No. 7-seeded Lewis-Clark State College made the tournament as an at-large bid out of the Frontier Conference, due in part to the Warriors’ run into the conference tournament finale.
No. 2-seeded Columbia was also an at-large bid, having performed well in the American Midwest Conference, though the Cougars did enter the tournament on a two-game losing streak.
"I think what really got us going is that we were able to string some stops together,” Burchard said. “Lewis-Clark State is very disciplined on offense and they really hurt us in the first half. But we got some stops and as soon as we started getting into the flow of the game, I started feeling better. We could do that when we started getting stops. I thought we were off-balance offensively in the first half and it really hurt us."
The Cougars advance to the second round to face Pikeville on Friday.
The Warriors look forward to next season.