SIOUX CITY, Iowa – When a team leads the nation shooting percentage and ranks third in total points, its defensive capability can often get lost amidst the hype and excitement of scoring. But make no mistake about it, Saint Francis hasn't ascended to being the favorite to win the 2014 NAIA Division II Women's Basketball National Tournament simply by outscoring people, alone.
The Cougars opened the tournament with a 57-37 romp over No. 8 seed Ashford (Iowa) Wednesday at the Tyson Events Center and their effort was more impressive at the defensive end than the offensive.
“There are a lot of possessions in our games,' Cougars coach Gary Andrews said. “You can't really go by how many points we put up in a game. We're a pretty good defensive team.”
With the victory, No. 1 seed Saint Francis (34-0) set a program mark for wins. The Cougars advance to play Siena Heights (26-8) Friday at 11:15 a.m. (EST).
Saint Francis jumped on Ashford early and often in building a quick 12-2 advantage, as they limited it to just 29 percent shooting in the opening half.
The Cougars not only forced Ashford into a lot of missed shots, but when it did miss, Saint Francis was there to rebound the ball (the Cougars held a 41-29 margin on the glass).
“We realize that we'll have some games where we're going to score a lot of points,” Andrews explained, “but if we're going to do anything, we're going to have to win with our defense.”
Ashford tried to slow the game down by working the clock and limiting Saint Francis offensive possessions, but the Cougars demonstrated enough patience to never seriously be threatened. They held a 26-17 lead at halftime and methodically pulled away in the second half.
“We played OK,” Andrews said. “Give Ashford credit, they tried to slow the game down, but we found a way to win.”
Saint Francis was paced by senior guard Skylarr Shurn, who put in 17 points, while Bishop Luers alum Brooke Ridley (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Jenelle Wilson (10 points, three assists) also contributed.
The road to the Cougars' first Final Four in eight seasons will get decidedly more difficult with the test against Siena Heights. However, the Cougars do have experience and success against it.
The Cougars won the Siena Heights Tournament in December with a 76-56 win over the hosts. However, at the time, Saint Francis had then-leading scorer, Akyah Taylor, who has not played during the second semester.
“Siena Heights is a lot better now,” Andrews said. “In their (Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference) championship game, they lost by one point to Davenport (Mich.), who is ranked second, at Davenport. Siena Heights is really good. They should be ranked a lot higher than they are.”
Siena Heights advanced with a 77-59 win over Tennessee Wesleyan (24-5) Wednesday.
The victory places Saint Francis in the Sweet 16 round for the 11th time and second straight year.