TOM DAVIS: Saint Francis puts forth ‘outstanding effort’ even in defeat

Saint Francis sophomore guard Connor Lautzenheiser defends against Indiana Wesleyan guard Joel Okafor during Tuesday's NAIA Division II Men's Basketball national championship game in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Wesleyan Athletics)
Saint Francis junior guard Austin Compton, right, and junior forward Chandler White, left, chase down Indiana Wesleyan guard Joel Okafor during Tuesday's NAIA Division II Men's Basketball national championship game in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Wesleyan Athletics)
Saint Francis senior guard Evan Henry defends against Indiana Wesleyan guard Canaan Coffey during Tuesday's NAIA Division II Men's Basketball national championship game in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Wesleyan Athletics)
Saint Francis senior center Bryce Lienhoop puts up a shot over Indiana Wesleyan guard Joel Okafor during Tuesday's NAIA Division II Men's Basketball national championship game in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Wesleyan Athletics)
Saint Francis sophomore guard Connor Lautzenheiser, left, and Evan Henry defend against Indiana Wesleyan guard Joel Okafor during Tuesday's NAIA Division II Men's Basketball national championship game in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Wesleyan Athletics)

Saint Francis fell to heated-rival Indiana Wesleyan 84-71 in Tuesday’s NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball national championship game in Sioux Falls, S.D.

This is where the local sportswriter pens a “you guys tried hard” column praising the players and coaches so that the pain of defeat can be softened to a degree.

Screw that.

I’m going to write a feel-good column praising those within the Cougar program, not to soften their pain, that can’t be done by anything but Father Time, but I’m going to do so because it is deserved.

What the Saint Francis hoops program just did over the past two weeks was nothing short of remarkable. That’s not me being nice, that is the truth. And quite frankly, what I saw from those athletes and coaches, I still find difficult to believe.

It was two weeks ago Tuesday that I watched from press row as Indiana Wesleyan humiliated the Cougars in the Crossroads League Tournament championship game. At one point in that game, the Wildcats were up 28 and only won by 12 because they got bored.

That is when veteran Saint Francis coach Chad LaCross demonstrated why he is one of the nation’s best coaches – at any level – by getting his team refocused for the national tournament.

“I don’t think it was anything that I said,” LaCross told News-Sentinel.com Monday evening following his team’s semifinal victory over College of Idaho.

Stop.

Coach, sell that garbage to someone who will buy it.

LaCross is the leader of the basketball program and every person involved in it follows his guidance.

He was able to get his players to put the disappointing defeat behind it mentally and attack the national tournament with a vengeance. And he didn’t do so with sign language.

The Cougars opened the national tournament with a 10-point win over Keiser (Fla.) and then followed that up with three consecutive wins by 11 points each.

Who wins every single game in a national tournament by double digits?

A well-coached and focused squad does, that’s who.

“They are playing as good as anybody in the entire tournament,” Indiana Wesleyan coach Greg Tonagel told News-Sentinel.com prior to Tuesday’s national championship tilt. “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.”

Yes, you do.

As impressive as the preparation for the tournament was, Tuesday’s game was even more so. And yes, I’m cognizant of the fact that Saint Francis lost.

Early in the second half, Indiana Wesleyan stretched its lead to 17 points (46-29) for the second time and, let’s be honest here, there was no one, besides those on the Saint Francis bench, who truly believed this team had a chance at victory at that point.

Just like the previous game, the Wildcats had used their length and skill to dominate Saint Francis.

The Cougars couldn’t score in their half-court offense and they couldn’t contain the massively-talented Indiana Wesleyan group defensively. Saint Francis was headed directly for what ultimately became its eighth consecutive defeat to Tonagel’s team.

That is where LaCross and his guys showed their moxie yet again.

Saint Francis began to make some shots, as senior guard Derek Hinen put on an amazing display of bravado and craftiness, all the while sophomore guard Connor Lautzenheiser was driving into the paint, senior center Bryce Lienhoop began to find his way around the huge Indiana Wesleyan front line, and senior center Stephen Turner impacted the game with his defense and physical presence.

The Cougars took off on an 11-0 run and all of a sudden we had us a ball game.

Over the remainder of the night, the Cougars trimmed their deficit to a mere point on six different occasions, but each time, Indiana Wesleyan had a response, which is what a champion does.

The Wildcats mounted a defining 9-2 run in the final minutes to seal their third national title in five years, which is a testament to Indiana Wesleyan’s greatness, but it doesn’t diminish what this Saint Francis program exhibited by never giving up even in the face of reason.

“I don’t think that we have to be outstanding,” LaCross said before the title game, “but we have to have an outstanding effort.”

Don’t worry coach, your program did.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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