Columbia College’s Tanner Sutton went down swishing.
Sutton’s two late three-pointers from the corner weren’t enough for the Cougars to overtake Our Lady of the Lake (Texas) in a 74-68 opening-round loss in the NAIA Division I Men’s Championships on Thursday at Municipal Auditorium.
But it couldn’t diminish Sutton’s remarkable, if understated, career at Columbia.
Sutton, a 6-foot-2, senior guard from Harrisonville, appeared in his eighth NAIA Tournament game on Thursday. That is a figure matched by few in recent years, considering so many teams consist of transfers and how hard it is for any team to go deep in this tournament.
Sutton never missed a game in his four-year career at the Missouri school. He never missed a start in his last three years, and his teams went 120-18, tying a school record for most career wins by a player, including 4-4 in the NAIA tournament.
“I’m not sure you can have a more storied college basketball resume than Tanner Sutton’s put together,” Columbia College’s Hall of Fame coach Bob Burchard said, “but I’m going to try and list it.
“He graduated early with a 4.0 … he played on two teams that were the No. 1 team in the nation … won 120 games in his collegiate career … was named the Pattison Character Scholarship Award winner (by the NAIA), was one of 10 players named to Allstate Goodworks Team where the NABC flew him to the (NCAA) Final Four last year, one of 10 players nationally (and only NAIA player) …
“It’s hard to fathom that level of complete student-athlete success. If you could say this is a prototype of a college student-athlete, you just plug in Tanner Sutton.”
Sutton, who averaged 10.7 points per game this season, scored 12 points Thursday on four of 10 three-point shooting while battling a virus and bacterial infection.
He drew the Cougars, 26-7, to within 71-65 with 52.6 seconds remaining by making two three-pointers in a span of 22 seconds. And he assisted on Jackson Dubinksi’s three-pointer that made it 73-68 with 28 seconds remaining.
But that’s as close as Columbia could get against Our Lady of the Lake, 25-5, and Sutton’s career was over.
“A loss is a loss, and it hurts,” a red-eyed Sutton said, “but like I told the guys in the locker room, this doesn’t define a career, it doesn’t define a season. I’ve been coming to this tournament since I was little with my dad. I remember him telling me one year, ‘Tanner it would be really cool if you could play here,’ and I’ve been so blessed to be able to come home to Kansas City and play, it’s been pretty amazing.”
In fact, Burchard’s first recruiting contact with Sutton occurred in Municipal Auditorium.
“His dad and he were watching the NAIA Tournament, and I went up and introduced myself,” Burchard said, “and I asked, ‘How would you like to be playing here?’ It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Though Sutton never was the Cougars’ leading scorer, he might have been the team’s most indispensable player during the last four years.
“Tanner was the heart and soul of our team,” said junior Zach Rockers, the team’s leading scorer entering the tournament at 12.7 points per game. “We’ve been roommates ever since we were freshmen … You never want it to come to an end.”
As the final seconds of the game wound down, Sutton came to the realization that his basketball career was over. Once the buzzer sounded, he walked to the rear of the handshake line. The thought of taking off the uniform for the last time is never easy.
“The first thing to come to my mind was, ‘God, thank you so much for this career,’ ” said Sutton. “This last minute of the game, I’m going to at least go out with character and not be in a bad mood. I’m not going to be down, I’m going to thank the crowd for supporting us, and thank the coaches for what they did and thank my teammates for how hard they fought.”
Sutton, who turns 22 on Sunday, is working on his Masters’ degree in accounting and already has a summer internship lined up with Price Waterhouse in Atlanta. He had hoped to put off his postgraduate plans a little longer.
“Obviously I would have liked to have gone farther here, and stayed here a little longer,” he said. “I’m going to go to Atlanta for spring break. Hopefully I can hold my head high knowing that basketball doesn’t define me but learning to play as a team and grow with a group of guys for four years, that’s what defines me.”