KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Rocky Mountain College coach Bill Dreikosen snipped the last dangling string of net, took one step down the ladder then thrust his index finger in the air.
Three days after the NCAA tournament left town and a few blocks from the glistening new Sprint Center, a new champion was crowned at old Municipal Auditorium -- and the winning coach had the biggest grin in the place.
Devin Uskoski had 20 points and 24 rebounds, and Rocky Mountain College won its first national championship in any sport by beating Columbia College 77-61 in the NAIA title game Tuesday night.
"For anybody, it's a huge deal," said Dreikosen, still sporting the lucky dark green jacket he'd been wearing all tournament. "There wasn't any better basketball [at Sprint Center] than there was right here in this facility."
A liberal arts school of 800 from Billings, Mont., Rocky Mountain (30-8) had struggled early in games during the tournament, falling behind at halftime three times. The Cougars left no doubt in their first title game, building a 19-point halftime lead and never letting up to turn the first NAIA championship between unseeded teams into a rout.
Nate Richardson, Rocky's 5-foot-5 point guard, darted and dashed his way through Columbia's defense, scoring most of his 14 points on a variety of high-arching floaters and runners in the lane. Chase Sukut provided the perimeter support for Uskoski with 11 points and James Bulluck also had 11 for the Bears, who shot 50 percent from the floor to become the fourth unseeded team in six years to win the NAIA title.
"It's a great experience and it's going to be something everlasting for that school," Dreikosen said.
Columbia (30-8), which plays in the shadow of the University of Missouri, never really had a chance in its first NAIA title game. The Cougars couldn't get into a rhythm offensively early against Rocky's aggressive man defense -- 9-for-25 in the first half -- and had trouble with the Bears' inside-out game all night.
Christian Lewis had 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting and Brett Hoskins added 13 for Columbia, the first American Midwest Conference school to reach the title game.
"Eventually it's going to hit us that we did something special for Columbia College, but at the moment, everyone is disappointed," Hoskins said. "Everyone wanted to win. Once we get time to think about it, we'll know we had a special season."
The Cougars just couldn't get anything going early.
Twice in the first half, Columbia coach Bob Burchard sent in five players off the bench, though not as punishment for the starters. Burchard came up with the pull-em-all strategy after a 77-60 loss to William Woods on Jan. 22 and the Cougars responded by winning 17 of 18, including four straight in the NAIA tournament.
It didn't matter what Columbia did this time.
Working through Uskoski in the post, Rocky made it look easy against Columbia's zone, pushing a five-point lead to 28-17 after Burchard's first mass substitution. The Bears led by 10 when Burchard made the switch again with 4˝ minutes left and Uskoski quickly responded with a three-point play, kicking off a closing 12-3 run that put Columbia up 45-24 at the half.
"The way the game started, they got out fast, threw the first punches and then got really confident. That was hard for us to overcome," Burchard said. "We thought if we could get some stops and play a little better on the offensive end, we could get the game turned a bit. But they wouldn't allow that to happen."
Rocky kept pushing after the break, overcoming a short Columbia run to extend the lead to 62-33 when Uskoski scored on a putback while falling to floor with 12˝ minutes left.
Uskoski, Rocky's leading scorer and rebounder, bulled his way past Columbia's defenders all night, getting 13 points and nine rebounds by halftime and finishing 9-for-14 from the floor overall. Once it was over, the senior helped lead the celebration at midcourt, hugging and high-fiving his teammates as streamers filled the air before being named tournament MVP.
"It's a dream come true," Uskoski said. "Going out on top is amazing. I dreamed about this as a kid and it happened. This is pretty special."