The trick for the unbeaten University of Saint Francis women's basketball team is to carry its boldness and poise into the national playoffs.
That balance isn't always easy, since one requires action and the other patience. The Cougars must aggressively put teams on their heels but remain poised when those teams punch back.
They're pretty close to mastering it. Saint Francis is 33-0 after beating Indiana Wesleyan 75-63 on Monday in the Crossroads League Tournament championship at the Hutzell Athletic Center. Saint Francis will take its No.1 ranking into the NAIA Tournament, with pairings to be set Wednesday night.
“Our team is different from other teams in our mental toughness,” senior guard Jenelle Wilson said. “It's different in how big everybody's hearts are and how much and how bad everybody wants it.
“From the beginning, we made it a goal of winning every game, but we wanted to get to the national tournament and get to the end of it,” she said. “Just the toughness and sticking together as a team and playing together is the difference between us and other teams.”
Wilson, a former Norwell High School standout, is one of the boldest players, of course, with a knack for hitting jumps shots to pull defenders out, then taking them off the drive with spin moves and quick reversals. She scored 23 points Monday.
Her backcourt partner in boldness, Skylarr Shurn, scored 27 points with six steals, four assists and contagious confidence.
“We run a lot of stuff through them and keep the ball in their hands, and they're so good with the ball in their hands,” Saint Francis coach Gary Andrews said. “They made some big shots and they both played a great game for us.”
Indiana Wesleyan (26-7) made its runs Monday, especially in the second half, and Saint Francis always answered.
Indiana Wesleyan cut the Cougars' lead to seven; Wilson hit a jumper. They cut it to five; Shurn hit a jumper. Five again, Wilson again off a spin. Five again, Wilson again, then Shurn again.
Saint Francis built a 15-point lead before it narrowed to eight at halftime, then rebuilt it to 13 before those second-half Indiana Wesleyan pushes.
“I told everyone just to slow down,” Shurn said. “Teams are going to make runs. It's basketball. That's what teams are going to do. IWU is a really good team, they're well-coached. I just told everyone to settle down and we were able to get the lead back up again.”
While Shurn and Wilson handle the perimeter poise, former Bishop Luers star Brooke Ridley leads the way in handling the dirty work inside where the bigger bold players bump elbows. Ridley scored 11 with nine rebounds and pair of blocks. Kalah Baer helped the inside cause, Paige Frisch hit a big three late in the game and Saint Francis received quality minutes from players off the bench.
Andrews' biggest challenge is to keep his team pushing, to make sure his players never reach the point of complacency. That's easier now, with one-and-done surrounding every game.
“We have to keep them motivated, and this team has been great about taking every game and realizing anybody can beat us if we don't show up,” Andrews said. “We're confident enough that we know if we play well, we have a chance to beat anybody in the country. We have that confidence, but we're not cocky, which is really important.”
They're bold and poised, a winning combination.