As the shot clock neared zero and Jordan Dressler protected the ball from an attacking defender 22 feet from the rim, he turned his shoulders and launched it toward the backboard.
It was a shot of desperation, but one Dressler, a 6-foot-8 NAIA All-American forward, proved was within his range — he made nearly 43 percent of the 40 three-pointers he’d attempted.
This one won’t be remembered because it was accurate — shot from the wing, the ball banked off the glass and rattled through the basket — but because it helped kickstart undefeated Columbia College’s run in the NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship.
In the minutes after the opening tip of what turned out to be an impressive 68-37 first-round win against Oklahoma City at Municipal Auditorium on Wednesday, the Cougars were already in trouble.
Starting forward Marquette Murrell was benched with two fouls less than two minutes in, and leading scorer Devin Griffin landed awkwardly soon after and hobbled off the floor.
But Dressler’s bankshot three with 14:38 left in the first half put the Cougars up 9-2 and turned a hard-fought, low-scoring game into a Columbia runaway.
“That was a little luck,” Dressler said. “But sometimes you have to have some lucky breaks in these tournaments. It felt like the crowd really got fired up after that.”
Dressler hit another three — this one much prettier — four minutes later that put Columbia up 11. He finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds to go with three blocks.
“He was really good on both ends of the floor,” Columbia coach Bob Burchard said. “He had a great practice today and I thought, man, he’s really into it. I could see it in his eyes. Banking a three in, it was like an explosion right there. It totally energized everybody.”
From there, top-seeded Columbia surged, maintaining a double-digit lead the rest of the way. The Cougars, who came into the tournament ranked first in scoring defense, held six-time national champion Oklahoma City to 21 percent shooting and gave up their fewest points allowed this season.
Even Burchard, who was also chosen national coach of the year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches on Wednesday, was surprised his team played perhaps its best defensive game in such a high-pressure situation. Columbia is seeking to be the first NAIA team to finish undefeated since Oklahoma City did it in 1992. Burchard admitted drawing the Stars, 17-11, made him nervous.
“I think the pressure was, that’s not an average 32-seed,” he said. “When we saw them show up there, I was concerned.”
Harrisonville graduate Tanner Sutton, along with teammate Chantel Stanciel, had a game-high four assists after learning he was honored with the Champions of Character Award and selected as one of five Pattison Family Foundation Scholarship recipients.
The Cougars will get a day off before their second round game at 6:15 p.m. Friday against Hope International (Calif.), an 80-62 winner over Emmanuel (Ga.) earlier Wednesday.