Saint Francis adapts, prevails in NAIA national semifinal

Saint Francis men's basketball coach Chad LaCross
Saint Francis senior forward Derek Hinen
Saint Francis senior center Bryce Lienhoop
Saint Francis junior forward Chandler White

After watching their favorite team shoot 80 percent from 3-point range in the NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball quarterfinals Saturday, the Saint Francis fan base had to be nauseous as they watched the Cougars miss their first 10 shots from beyond the arc in Monday’s semifinal in Sioux Falls, S.D.

However, veteran Saint Francis coach Chad LaCross has learned to be adaptable throughout his 202 (and counting) career victories, and in Monday’s 70-59 win over College of Idaho, LaCross got 40 minutes of strong defensive play out of his team, coupled with an offensive adjustment in the second half, which lifted the Cougars to their fourth appearance in the national championship game in the past nine seasons.

Saint Francis (29-8) will face heated-rival Indiana Wesleyan (30-7) tonight at 7 p.m. (EST). The game will be televised on ESPN3.

The Cougars came into Monday’s game against College of Idaho (30-7) shooting 39.6 percent from 3-point range for the season, but 30 minutes into the game, they still hadn’t made one. However, that dilemma was minimized by the level of execution at the other end of the court.

“Our defensive effort was outstanding,” LaCross told News-Sentinel.com following the win. “They were a team that came into the game with a lot of confidence in scoring the ball. I thought we did a great job of just frustrating them.”

College of Idaho entered the tournament as the 7th-most prolific 3-point shooting team in the country and had shot at least 43.8 percent in each of their four tournament wins. However, the Cougars held the Yotes to 35 percent shooting overall and 33 percent shooting from long range.

That defensive effort allowed the ice-cold Cougars to remain within range of the Yotes, as they only trailed at the half 30-25.

“We felt going into halftime like we were getting a lot of things that we wanted to,” LaCross said, “but we just weren’t making shots. We forced some shots, which we typically don’t do, and we thought that if we just cleaned that stuff up we could take advantage of them.”

As his team was defending their tails off at one end, LaCross made a schematic adjustment following halftime at the other, which paid huge dividends.

College of Idaho was playing a match-up zone and LaCross moved senior forward Derek Hinen into the middle of it and the former Columbia City High School standout went off on the Yote defenders.

“He’s been playing spectacular,” Indiana Wesleyan coach Greg Tonagel said of Hinen after watching the Saint Francis game. “He did it again tonight. He was the difference in that second half.”

The 6-foot-3 athlete scored 15 of his 21 points in the final period.

“He’s so crafty,” LaCross said of Hinen. “He uses shot fakes and up-and-unders, he just kind of went at their big guys, but didn’t force anything either.”

Hinen not only scored well, but he also worked defensively. He finished the game with eight rebounds, which was just one behind team leaders Chandler White and Bryce Lienhoop, who each pulled down nine boards.

The trio helped the Cougars outrebound their sixth opponent in the past seven games.

“Our effort defensively,” LaCross said, “we’re just playing at a higher level. We’ve just got a group of guys that want to get it done.”

Saint Francis finally got a 3-pointer from sophomore guard Austin Compton midway through the second half, who knocked in two of the three 3-pointers that Saint Francis made on the night.

The Cougars connected on just 3 of 15 from long range, which tied for their season-low in that statistic. However, the defensive performance was the third best of the year and best since Jan. 30 against Taylor.

“We’ve got a group of guys who are fantastic leaders,” LaCross said. “We’ve got four seniors that are unbelievable on and off of the court.

“Right now, their mindset is that they don’t want to lose.”

White finished with 14 points, while Lienhoop chipped in 18.

For more on college basketball, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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