KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For 23 minutes, the Lewis-Clark State College men's basketball team had the NAIA's sixth-ranked Columbia Cougars on the ropes on Thursday afternoon.
Unfortunately for the Warriors, they went cold from the field and just couldn't catch a break.
Leading by as much as 15 early in the second half, the Warriors were outscored 42-15 the remainder of the game and fell to the Cougars 71-59 in their first-round matchup at the 80th annual NAIA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship at the Municipal Auditorium.
The Warriors, ranked No. 26 in the NAIA, finish the season at 23-11. The 23 wins ties for the seventh highest in a season in program history.
"I am proud of what this team was able to accomplish this year," LCSC coach Brandon Rinta said. "We definitely faced our share of adversity and none of these guys stopped believing in each other."
The underdogs Warriors led almost the entire first half until Jackson Dubinksi's 3-pointer gave Columbia a 20-18 lead. Columbia's final lead of the half came with 6:22 left at 22-21 as it could only muster three more points before halftime. The 12-3 run the Warriors put together made it 33-25 for LCSC at halftime.
"We came out and competed today from the jump," Rinta said. "They went on a small run in the first half but other than that we controlled the first 25 minutes."
The Warriors kept the momentum to start the second half with the first six points for a 39-25 advantage. LCSC led by 15 twice, the second time at 44-29 when Doug McDaniel scored in the paint at the 16:48 mark.
"We came out in the second half and stepped it up a notch and put them on their heels," Rinta said. "We were getting to the basket at will and they had no choice but to go zone and pack it in on us. After that we got open 3 after open 3 and just could not connect."
Right when it the Warriors were ready to hand Columbia its fourth loss in its last five games, the Cougars came to life. In the meantime, LCSC found buckets hard to come by and only made five field goals the rest of the way.
"We tried to get the ball inside but their length along with how they were packing it in kept us from being able to get it inside," Rinta said.
Columbia started the rally with a 15-0 run as the Warriors went scoreless for more than seven minutes. Preston Whitfield's bucket for Columbia tied the game at 44, and it wasn't until Anthony Sullen scored on a three-point play at the 9:44 mark that the Warriors were able to end the streak.
Nic Reynold's two free throws with 6:36 left gave Columbia its first lead of the second half at 55-54. The Cougars stretched the margin to 63-56 before McDaniel hit a 3-pointer to make it 63-59 with 3:22 left. LCSC, however, wouldn't score again in the game.
McDaniel had an opportunity to make it a one-possession contest with 1:50 remaining, but he missed a pair of free throws. The Warriors were forced to foul and Columbia was able to hit 7-of-8 free throws in the final 98 seconds to preserve the win.
LCSC attempted a season-high 45 3-pointers in the game, but made only seven for 15.6 percent accuracy. LCSC entered the contest averaging 36 percent from the arc. In its previous season high, LCSC attempted 43 3-pointers against Walla Walla, but made 21.
"Maybe we should have passed up on some of our 3s but I have complete confidence in our shooters and kept believing the next one was going in," Rinta said. "We kept fighting and were at the free-throw line with a chance to cut it to two with a couple of minutes left."
Overall, the Warriors were 23-of-72 from the field for 31.9 percent.
McDaniel led the Warriors with 21 points, while Derrick White was the only other Warrior with more than five as he finished with nine points. Zavon Jackson finished with a game-high 13 rebounds along with four assists.
Although Columbia had a significant size advantage, LCSC outrebounded the Cougars 40-38, LCSC, however, had 18 turnovers, while Columbia had 16.
Reynolds, a 6-foot-2 junior guard, nearly doubled his season scoring average as he tied his season-high with 25 points. He entered the game averaging 13.9 points.
Columbia also had a rough time from the 3-point line as it was 4-of-20 for 20 percent. Inside the arc, however, the Cougars were 19-of-28 to finish the game 23-of-48 overall for 47.9 percent.
This was the third straight year and fourth time in five years the Warriors qualified for the NAIA national tourney under Rinta. LCSC is now 3-12 in its 12 appearances overall at the tournament.
LCSC finished the year second in the Frontier Conference tournament and third in the regular-season standings. The team loses four seniors – McDaniel, Jackson, Ty Higbie, and Isaiah Omamogho.