New players join the mix and the defensive philosophy is evolving, but the University of Saint Francis men's basketball team's goal remains the same.
Junior guard Josh Hogan won't hesitate to point the way.
“I want to win and I feel we can go all the way; we have what it takes,” Hogan said. “Of course, we're just getting started, but I believe we can do it. We have to get back there.”
Hogan scored 22 points and converted a critical three-point play late in Saint Francis' season-opening 68-63 win over Indiana Tech on Tuesday at the Hutzell Center.
The destination Hogan references is the NAIA Division II championship tournament, something the Cougars missed last season with an 18-13 record.
“We definitely want to get there, that's our No.1 goal,” Hogan said. “We don't care about individuals, who's scoring, we just want to play together.”
Fourth-year coach Chad LaCross likes what he hears and sees from Hogan and his other veterans, including NAIA All-American Scott Kohne, but he knows a lot will depend on how his newcomers blend in with his returning players.
My first impression from watching the Cougars' opening game is that the blending is already underway and working well.
Junior transfer Austin Fox, from Muncie Central via IU-South Bend, brings toughness and grit to the lineup at forward. He had 11 points, five rebounds and a steal. Freshman guard Kegan Comer, from Jay County, came off the bench with 15 points and two steals.
“I feel like early on in practice and situations we weren't playing together that well,” LaCross said. “I think we started to click in our scrimmages and exhibitions. Obviously, it's a lot more fun when you're playing together, getting stops and creating offense with defense.”
Comer would have likely been in the starting lineup, LaCross said, if he hadn't been late to a practice leading up to the game. Comer was right on time on several occasions Tuesday, including hitting back-to-back three-point shots to quell one Indiana Tech rally midway through the second half.
“He's a good player, solid, comes from a great program at Jay County,” LaCross said. “He does a great job, he understands the game so well. He's a perimeter threat, but he can put it on the floor and get to the rim.”
Fox's contributions could be seen in the way the offense flowed when he was on the floor with Kohne (13 points, 10 rebounds) and how the offense sputtered sometimes when he was on the bench.
Some of that was because the transition game slowed down without his defense. LaCross said he has changed the team's defensive approach, with less switching in order to avoid mismatches of big men on perimeter players.
“Fox is definitely a workhorse for us,” Hogan said. “He's going to do anything it takes for us to win. Rebound, defense, he gives us some offense. He's very productive in the contributions he can bring to the team.”
Kohne continues to be as effective as ever, and he's the type of player who embraces the team concept with no concern about his individual numbers. He put up a double double, yet took seven shots. He added three assists (the team's high despite playing forward) and a steal.
Indiana Tech is trying to develop a new rotation of its own since it doesn't return a single player who played significant minutes last season.
Indiana Tech coach Al Grushkin played the disciplinarian, too, taking forward Rontray Chavis out of the starting lineup when he didn't approach the walk-through with the right attention to detail.
Chavis made sure to make an impact in the game, however, scoring 21 points with 10 rebounds and scoring a number of times off second chances to push the Warriors back in the game late. Former Snider standout Nick Lewis scored 14 points.
Indiana Tech was in position to steal the win late, trailing 62-61 when Lewis tried to take a charge from Hogan. The officials called blocking on Lewis and Hogan completed a three-point play.
“The ref thought it wasn't a charge and called it the other way,” Lewis said. “If I had got that charge, I think we could have scored and most likely won the game.”
In the end, Saint Francis' new mix of players made just enough plays to win the 99th men's basketball game between the Fort Wayne colleges.
“We feel like this was big for us, to get this win,” LaCross said.
They're headed in the right direction, the first small step toward the big goal of a national championship run a few months down the road.
SAINT FRANCIS 68, INDIANA TECH 63
Indiana Tech: Cooksey 6, Lewis 14, Hammer 0, Packer 3, Cathey 2, Watkins 5, Wohltman 0, Chavis 21, Stouffer 12.
Saint Francis: Kohne 13, Fox 11, Sovine 0, Hahn 5, Hogan 22, K. Comer 15, Fashawe 0, S. Comer 2.
Three-point goals: IT/1 (Watkins), SF/5 (Hogan 2, K. Comer 2, Hahn 1); Rebounds: IT/32 (Chavis 10, Stouffer 9, Cooksey 5), SF/34 (Kohne 10, Fox 5, Sovine 5). Assists: IT/3, SF/8 (Kohne 3). Steals: IT/3 (Lewis 2), SF/8 (Hahn 3, K. Comer 2); Turnovers: IT/14, SF/11. Total fouls: IT/23, SF/17.