NAIA NOTES: National championship foes have followed a familiar path to title game
The NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball national championship game would make Yogi Berra scratch his head as if he was experiencing “déjà vu all over again.”
It was just two years ago that national powers Indiana Wesleyan and Saint Francis faced each other for the title, and the two basketball behemoths will do so again tonight.
The Wildcats (30-7) will take on Saint Francis (29-8) at 7 p.m. (EST) in Sioux Falls, S.D. after each won their semifinal games Monday. The championship game will be televised on ESPN3.
“I said it after the Cornerstone win (in the quarterfinal),” veteran Saint Francis coach Chad LaCross told News-Sentinel.com Monday, “to compete for a national championship you have to beat the best. It is no surprise to us that we have to go through Indiana Wesleyan.”
The match-up isn’t just the same as it was two years ago, but the circumstances are even identical, but just the opposite (a true “Yogism” if there ever was one).
In the 2015-16 season, the Cougars beat the Wildcats three times en route to the regular season and tournament championships within the Crossroads League. However, with the national championship on the line, it was Indiana Wesleyan that finally figured out how to beat that Cougar squad and earned the title with a 69-66 win.
This season, it is the reverse.
Indiana Wesleyan has gotten past Saint Francis each of the three games in which they have played, as the Wildcats earned the league’s two championships. So it will be interesting to see if it is the Cougars that can finally solve the problem that they have had with their rival this season.
“Saint Francis has a different team,” Indiana Wesleyan coach Greg Tonagel told News-Sentinel.com Monday, “and we’ve got a different team. As much as it may appear on paper to be a similar situation, we are both different programs in different places right now.”
Tonight’s game will be the fourth trip to the championship game for Saint Francis.
The Cougars won the 2010 title, but lost in the 2011 and 2016 games.
For Indiana Wesleyan, Tonagel will be going for his third championship since 2014.
The Wildcats won the 2016 game, as mentioned, but also the 2014 title game, with a 78-68 win over Midland (Neb.).
WHAT TO EXPECT
The three games between the two rivals have been a mix of drama and domination this season.
Indiana Wesleyan got 40 points from freshman guard Kyle Mangas in beating Saint Francis 89-82 in overtime in Fort Wayne in January, before also surviving 86-82 a month later in Marion.
However, the Crossroads League championship game belonged to the host Wildcats from start to finish.
Indiana Wesleyan earned a 12-point victory (95-83), but that really didn’t tell the whole story.
The Wildcats led by as many as 28 points at different junctures of the second half. However, Tonagel believes that night will have nothing to do with tonight’s game.
“It’s probably going to be really close,” Tonagel said. “They are playing as good as anybody in the entire tournament. You have to give Chad a lot of credit for going from our conference tournament to getting them fired up and firing on all cylinders.”
CHANGING OF THE MINDS
LaCross said that he hadn’t addressed his team and what had transpired in either 2016 or in the last outing against Indiana Wesleyan.
He feels that his guys are in a different place mentally than they were a few weeks ago and they are confident heading into tonight’s match-up.
“We’ve just got to have the same focus and the same mindset that we’ve had the past four games at the national tournament and take care of business and take care of us,” LaCross said. “We just need to focus on us and play at the level that we have been playing.”
The Cougars have found ways to win in varying ways throughout the tournament.
In the quarterfinal win over Cornerstone, Saint Francis hit 8 of 10 3-point shots, while in Monday’s win over the College of Idaho; the Cougars missed 12 of 15 from long range and had to rely on their defense to keep them alive.
“I don’t think that we have to be outstanding,” LaCross said of the title game, “but we have to have an outstanding effort.”
HINEN IS AWESOME
Saint Francis has had a number of players perform very well throughout the national tournament; after all, a team can’t reach this point on one player alone. However, senior forward Derek Hinen has been exceptional and Tonagel acknowledged such.
“Well, nobody has done it yet,” Tonagel said when asked how to defend Hinen. “He’s been playing spectacular.”
The former Columbia City High School standout is averaging over 27 points per game and six rebounds per outing.
Not only is Hinen producing, but he is doing so in an efficient manner.
He is shooting nearly 60 percent from the field overall.
“I’m not sure that there really is a way to stop him,” Tonagel said. “You just have to try and make things difficult for him.”
THE FINAL GAME
Opponents of Indiana Wesleyan surely have grown weary of having to endure the emotional bursts displayed by Wildcat senior Jacob Johnson through the years.
The hand claps, the yells, and the vicious throw-downs on your team’s heads, they tend to wear on an opposing crowd. However, Tonagel is going to miss the forward, who will play in his 118th and final game tonight.
“Jacob holds a special place in my heart,” Tonagel said.
That wasn’t just coach-speak or hyperbole on the part of Tonagel.
The coach and his player spend time in the off-season as “hunting buddies,” and that time away from the court has forged a special bond.
“Outside of basketball,” Tonagel explained, “we hunt together, so we’ve got a friendship off of the court. That is going to continue when he graduates.”
Johnson has been a reliable part of the Wildcat lineup for four seasons and has started 98 games as of tonight. He will leave the Indiana Wesleyan program with nearly an 11-point per game average for his four seasons. However, it isn’t the multitude of shots or rebounds or defensive plays that Johnson made that have made a lasting impression on the coach.
“Having coached him for four years,” Tonagel said, “and seen the transformation in his life, from when he came in, he is leaving a totally different man and one that is going to be very successful.
“I’m very proud of him and like I said, we’ve got a deep friendship.”
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