By Maurice Patton
COLUMBIA – Shooting less than 33 percent from the free throw line in a postseason contest isn’t conducive to surviving or advancing.
But following his team’s 44-43 loss to visiting Southwest Tennessee in Thursday’s semifinals of the TCCAA tournament, Columbia State coach Winston Neal wasn’t ready to boil the outcome down to that singular factor.
“That would be very easy to point to. That’s a major issue,” Neal said after the Chargers converted just 6 of 19 attempts from the foul line – including a pair of missees by sophomore forward Chris Nix with 3.5 seconds remaining and the hosts trailing by a point. “We’ve been working on free throws. We’ve been getting up 100 a day for the last month and a half.
“It’s simple to point to that. But in the broader context, we didn’t execute what we do.”
Defensively, the Chargers (14-3) performed admirably – limiting Southwest to fewer field goals (four) than made free throws (six) in the opening half en route to a 27-17 cushion at the break.
But, as in the Saluqis’ last trip to the Webster Athletic Center two weeks ago, a second-half surge made it a 34-34 game midway through the period.
Back-to-back low-post baskets by Tarre’q Williams helped C-State retake a 40-34 lead, but the hosts went 3-for-7 from the line and scoreless from the floor over the final eight minutes.
“If you do what you’ve done and you get beat, you can live with that,” Neal said. “We didn’t do that. That’s why you see the tears, the hurt. We didn’t give them our best punch.
“Southwest sped us up, got us out of our game, took us out of our rhythm. I thought our defensive performance was fantastic, holding a team to 44 points. I think we’ve been one of the best defensive teams in the country.
“But we weren’t efficient offensively. We turned the ball over. That’ll get you beat.”
With sophomore guard R.J. Abernathy struggling when he was on the floor, Columbia State played most of the way with a backcourt comprised of freshmen Amirion Joyce, Janias Parham and/or Tre Carlton. The Charger posts controlled the game through the early going, and Williams finished with a team-high 13 points. Down the stretch, though, the hosts played smaller inside than they were at key moments.
“I knew they were going to take me away,” said sophomore wing Jamari Bostic, who was held to five points – missing a front end of a one-and-one with 3:06 to play in a three-point game, then missing a 3-point try from the top of the key inside the two-minute mark.
“Our defense was excellent. We win as a team, we lose as a team.”
With that, the defending state champions are left to watch Southwest Tennessee and Cleveland State – a 60-58 semifinal winner Thursday over Roane State – clash Saturday at Volunteer State with an automatic berth to the national tournament on the line, and hope to make the 24-team field as an at-large selection.
The TCCAA has not seen a member team receive an at-large since the current format of 16 region qualifiers and eight at-larges was adapted, according to commissioner Foster Chason.
“We lost two games by one, on the last possession, to a good team,” Neal said. “We lost to Roane State (in the season opener). We’ve been in the Top 25 all year. We’ll fill out the at-large form and see what happens.
“I’ve got to credit our guys. We fought to the end. We had opportunities; we just didn’t take advantage. But I’m so proud of their fight, their toughness. We could have wilted. We didn’t.”
And a season that began under the mantra of “unfinished business”, as the pandemic prevented the 2019-20 team from going to Hutchinson, Kans., for the nationals, ends in the same manner.
“If we don’t get the bid, we’re going next year,” Bostic said. “The business is unfinished, for sure.”
Southwest Tennessee 44, Columbia State 43
Southwest Tennessee (44) – Brandon Mason 17, Eric Johnson 2, Jamie Sanders 10, Juan Cojelli 4, Decorio Smith 7, Kaemon Purdue 4
Columbia State (43) – Chris McKnight 3, Amirion Joyce 6, Tarre’q Williams 13, Chris Nix 2, Trevon Harris 1, Tre Carlton 5, Xavier Griffith 6, Jamari Bostic 5, Malique Oates 2
3-pointers – Southwest Tennessee 8 (Mason 4, Sanders 2, Smith 2), Columbia State 3 (McKnight, Carlton, Bostic)
Half – Columbia State 27, Southwest Tennessee 17