First-year women’s basketball coach James Arnold was incensed at his Columbia College Cougars.
Stephens College was biting into the Cougars’ lead, and the Stars had all the momentum. So, Arnold showed it. He slammed his playboard into the Southwell Center’s court and asked them, politely, yet firmly, to rebound the basketball better.
Columbia won by 19, but not before the Stars made Cougars sweat on their own home court. The crosstown game between Stephens and Columbia is becoming the one word it wasn’t before: rivalry.
“Listen, that basketball team is as good as anybody in the country,” Arnold said. “It’s a rivalry.”
The 2022-2023 basketball season has been a boon for both Columbia and Stephens. Both have earned double-digit wins and will enter February jockeying for favorable American Midwest Conference tournament seeding.
They’re both keeping an eye on each other, especially after Columbia lost to Stephens for the first time in the history of games between the two programs.
“To get to that point, I mean we got to be consistent at competing,” Stephens College coach Andre Bell said. “We got to be consistent in recruiting. We got to be consistent as we grow as a program. But we won’t back down from nobody. Columbia College is a really good program, man. But I think we’ll be a really good program too.”
To understand the success Stephens College is enjoying this season, a glance at the program’s foundation is necessary.
In the last nine seasons, the Stars’ women’s basketball program has eclipsed the six-win mark just twice: once in 2017 when the team won nine games and last year when Bell closed his first season coaching Stephens College with an eight-win campaign.
From 2014 to 2021, the program has 36 total wins. Compare that to the last two years at Columbia, where the Cougars have won 41 games, and it was a tale of programs on the opposite ends of the spectrum.
That’s why it isn’t inaccurate to point to a double-digit win season that Stephens is currently putting together midway through the 2022-2023 season and say it’s remarkable.
Winning didn’t happen much in the Stephens College women’s basketball program. It does now with Bell at the helm.
Bell is responsible for perhaps the most significant win in Stephens College history: a 60-52 win over Columbia College on November 19, 2022. It was the Stars’ first-ever win over the Cougars.
It was a symbol of how far Bell has taken Stephens. Still, on January 21, the Cougars left a reminder of how talented their program is and has been.
The Cougars beat the Stars 73-54 at Columbia College. Columbia crashed the offensive glass to take a first-half lead and used its depth to hold off the two Stephens runs in the second half. The Cougars avenged the loss from earlier this season by learning from what Stephens did to bother them.
Stephens was down Zaraya March in the rematch, who earned nine rebounds in the first meeting this season, but Arnold still made it a point to rebound better during the game.
In the second half, that’s when Arnold slammed his play board on the ground and lit into his team. Momentum was on Stephens’ side. It’s how they won 12 games to that point.
The Cougars needed to rebound better in order to win. Stephens hadn’t forced many competitive games with Columbia before.
“They’re well coached, they’re gritty, they work really hard,” Arnold said. “I don’t wanna see them in the playoffs, I can tell you that.”
The two programs finding success at the same time fits a theme around the City of Columbia.
Missouri men’s and women’s basketball both have NCAA Tournament aspirations. Father Tolton boys basketball remains a state-ranked power. Battle, Rock Bridge and Hickman girls basketball were all state-ranked in the same poll for the first time ever, while the boys teams all have an influx of college-level talent.
A rising rivalry between Stephens and Columbia would add another element to an already basketball-centric city. It might not be at the level of intensity as other crosstown rivalries, but mutual respect is easily there.
“I don’t think we’re that yet, but we’re just a good team trying to get better,” Bell said. “Columbia College’s a well-oiled program.”
It’s an added factor that both programs have crowds that are buying into a rivalry between the two, also.
“Tonight was great energy, it was great energy when we played over at Stephens,” Arnold said. “It’d be nice if it was a give-me, but certainly iron sharpens iron and we learned a lot from our loss over there.”
That loss was an example for Columbia. Stephens College has built itself into a fast-paced and competitive team in just two years under Bell.
Bell knows this, too. His work is paying off, and he knows the sky is the limit for the Stars. The same could be said for the Columbia-Stephens rivalry, too.
“Stephen’s College ain’t going nowhere,” Bell said. “We’re here to stay.”
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