Just about everything the Columbia College women’s basketball team did this week began early.
Wake up times. Breakfast. Practice. It all started before the sun came up.
The purpose? To prepare the Cougars for their first round NAIA National Championship matchup with No. 7 seed Benedictine College, slated for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“We’ll have gotten up early four mornings in a row in preparation for the game as a team,” head coach Taylor Possail said. “There’s some real pros when you get to the national tournament to playing early in the morning, and not sitting around all day thinking about the game. For our team, being a little younger, I think that’s going to be good for us.”
Columbia College (28-5, 23-1 American Midwest Conference) will get an early start in its third-consecutive NAIA National Championship, where the Cougars are the No. 2 seed in the Duer Bracket.
Under the guidance of AMC Coach of the Year Possail, the Cougars head to the tournament riding a program-record 22-game winning streak that helped secure the AMC regular season title and a championship win in the conference’s postseason tournament.
The tournament appearance in Billings, Montana, also marks the Cougars’ 14th tournament appearance since the program’s inception in 2001.
Although the Cougars’ strong play has propelled them into a No. 2 seed, Possail knows what a winning streak like Columbia’s can do to an opponent’s hunger or the Cougars’ appetite.
“When you find success at the end of the regular season and then in the conference tournament, it’s about making sure you don’t get complacent,” Possail said. “Our girls have done a great job of staying sharp and understanding the bigger goals that we have still listed on our team goal list.”
Columbia College will need that same fire Wednesday in order to knock off the Ravens. Although Benedictine (23-8, 13-6 Heart of America) enters as a No. 7 seed, the battled-tested Ravens are appearing in their fourth-straight NAIA National Tournament. That experience could be dangerous for Columbia. Led by senior forward Kristen Murphy, who scored 15.5 points per game, the Cougars will be challenged from the opening tip.
The two teams feature contrasting playing styles: Columbia College runs a fast-paced offense, while Benedictine has a slower approach. Asserting their style early will be key for either side.
Pace has been crucial to Columbia’s success in the latter half of the season. Averaging just over 20 forced turnovers per game, the Cougars harass opponents on the defensive end and force fast breaks.
In matchups where opponents have slowed the ball down and milked the game clock, however, the Cougars have struggled to adjust. In order to remain in control and keep the speed of the game high, defensive stalwarts Jordan Alford and Alexis Uffmann need to make an impact.
“We don’t want to get caught in a slower game,” Possail said. “We want to make sure we’re playing our style of ball. Transition offense and defense is going to be big for us on Wednesday morning.”
The absence of two-way star Ashlee Marlatt, who suffered a wrist injury in the Cougars’ first-round matchup of the AMC Tournament, creates a void in Columbia’s rotation that needs to be filled for the duration of the tournament. In order for the Cougars to make up for the lost production on both ends of the floor, role players need to step up just as they did in the final two rounds of the conference championship.
Possail is quick to assert that despite all the talent left to replace her, Marlatt’s contributions will be difficult to truly replace. With that, he has strong faith in his rotational players to help fuel the Cougars to a deep run.
“We’re going to ask other players to step up and to play new roles,” Possail said. “Obviously, we’d love to have Ashlee. She makes our team very good, and she’s a major part of what makes us us. But in these times, you just look to everyone else.”
The Cougars tip off at 9:30 a.m Wednesday morning. Each tournament game will be streamed from the NAIA website, and single-day passes start at $9.95.
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