Actions spoke louder than words, though words did motivate the University of Saint Francis second-half action in a 78-71 upset win over 11th-ranked IU-Southeast, before more than 400 fans at Hutzell Athletic Center on Wednesday.
The Cougars improved to 8-2, breaking out of a halftime deadlock at 35 scoring the first eight points in the second half to take a 43-35 lead. IUSE (6-3) got no closer than four points (75-71) the rest of the way.
"We talked about playing better defense at halftime," Saint Francis coach Chad LaCross said in a release. "We talked about intensity and executing better on both ends of the floor. We did a great job of putting what we talked about in action in the second half. We kept our composure down the stretch knowing they would make a run. This was a statement win and I'm really proud of our effort and execution tonight."
Junior forward Scott Kohne led the Cougars by delivering his seventh double double of the season with 26 points and 12 rebounds. Kohne, who blocked five shots, scored 16 of his points in the final 20 minutes and produced his fifth 20-plus points game of the season. He connected on 6-of-13 shots in the second half and was 4-for-6 shooting from the free-throw line.
He broke the halftime tie with a score in the paint at 19:39, then Ethan Hussey buried back-to-back 3-pointers to launch Saint Francis in front by eight with 18:24 left in the game.
"That was great to jump out and take control," Kohne said. "We relaxed and shot the ball well for a long stretch after jumping in front. We also cut down on the number of turnovers and did a better job of limiting (IUSE's) transition game."
After IUSE got as close as 53-49 on a Tyrell Means score in the paint at 9:29, the Cougars bolted out to their largest lead of the game at 17 points. Brad Sneary, who led all rebounders with 15 for Saint Francis, started the run muscling in a basket at 9:06 off a feed from Seth Small. Kohne made it 60-49, then Kevin Bloom sank a 3-pointer at 7:33 for a 63-49 lead.
After a Cameron Mitchell score for the Grenadiers, Bloom drilled his fifth 3-pointer of the game at 6:26 and at 6:02 Kohne hooked in two more points for a 68-51 lead.
"We knew they would make a run," Kohne said. "We just had to take care of the ball against their pressure and hit our free throws down the stretch. We hit enough of our free throws, though we made it a little more interesting than we wanted."
Mitchell slashed the Cougars lead to 75-71 with 14 seconds to play, but Small knocked down a pair of free throws. Haris Batalevic missed a wild 3-point attempt, then Kevin Mitchell missed a 2-point shot. Kohne his the second of the double bonus free-throw chance with five seconds to finish the scoring.
Saint Francis won despite the Grenadiers 50 percent second-half shooting from both the field (13 for 26) and the 3-point arc (5 for 10). USF connected on the same number of field goals but took one more shot than IUSE. USF outscored IUSE by eight (13-5) from the free-throw line in the final so minutes.
"I thought we did a better job of finishing shots in the second half," LaCross said.
Bloom and Kohne scored 10 points apiece to to pace the Saint Francis first-half scoring. The Cougars shot .364 (12 for 33) and they held a 29-18 advantage on the boards.
Saint Francis slipped behind 7-4, but Bloom blossomed hitting back-to-back 3's to give it a 10-7 lead with 15:48 to play. The Cougars stretched their advantage to as many as 10 points, 23-13, after Josh Hogan hit a pair of free throws with 10:43 to play.
IUSE countered with a 17-5 charge that wiped out the Saint Francis cushion and put the Grenadiers ahead, 30-28, with 3:00 to play after a Cam Mitchell second-chance score from the paint. There were four ties in the final 4:30 of the first half, the last at 35 on a Spencer Comer free throw with 38 seconds to play. Neither team could score in the final seconds after each turned the ball over.
The Cougars, who won their third straight in the series with IUSE, finished with a 46-31 rebounding advantage. Small scored his eight points all in the second half and he led USF with six assists. IUSE continues to lead the series 12-11 after the fourth meeting in the last four seasons.
Saint Francis will play Trinity Christian College in the Habitat for Humanity Classic at Grace College on Friday at 6 p.m.