SIOUX CITY, Iowa – If you suddenly took the leading scorer and second best rebounder off of any of the NCAA Tournament squads talked about ad nauseum this week, it would more than likely affect your office pool selections. But in the case of the Saint Francis women's basketball program, the Cougars encountered that obstacle and are showing no sign of distress.
Saint Francis will face Cardinal Stritch (27-6) today at 7 p.m. (EST) (ESPN3) in the first semifinal of the NAIA Division II National Tournament at the Tyson Events Center.
“The thing that we've done all year is just take it one game at a time,” Saint Francis coach Gary Andrews said. “We just worry about whoever we are playing and if we win, then start worrying about the next game.”
He means “when” the Cougars win, not “if,” for they haven't lost a game all season.
In late December, the Cougars (36-0) were ranked No. 1 in the country after winning 15 consecutive games and being paced by 5-foot-11 sophomore forward Akyah Taylor, who had transferred to Saint Francis after spending two seasons at Michigan State. Taylor was averaging nearly 21 points and eight rebounds, but was ruled ineligible after first semester and the Cougars needed to reassess everything.
“When we had Akyah, we felt that we were probably the most athletic and talented team in the country,” Andrews said. “We expected to win every game.
"All of a sudden we got that jolt and I told my coaches 'We still have talent, but we're going to have to coach our butts off. We've got to find a way to move people around and some people are going to have to step up.'”
Andrews moved freshman Paige Frisch into the starting lineup and the threesome of seniors Jenelle Wilson and Skylarr Shurn, as well as sophomore Brooke Ridley, continued the trend of success that has Saint Francis within sight of its first national championship in program history.
The Cougars remained atop the national poll throughout January, as they won eight straight games, with just two by single digits. But it was an early February 73-57 beatdown of defending national champion and fourth-ranked Indiana Wesleyan where Andrews thought first about a national title.
“When we beat Wesleyan at Wesleyan,” Andrews recalled, “that was like 'Hey, we can beat anybody in the country.' We were going to win this conference and we had a chance to maybe run the table.”
The Cougars have done that thus far, and even the daunting task of playing the nation's best in the national tournament hasn't slowed this group. Saint Francis has won each of its three tournament games by nearly 20 points per game, as they are dominating at both ends of the floor, particularly at the defensive end, which is where championships typically are decided.
“It is a little bit surprising,” Andrews said. “Southwestern is a very good team and Siena Heights is a very good team. To play as well as we've played, this team, there is something about it.
“We have talent, and it's hard to say that they overachieve, but we just get the most out of our ability.”
In the other semifinal, No. 2-ranked Davenport (34-1) will face College of the Ozarks (26-9).