POINT LOOKOUT, Mo. – The 2017 NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball Tournament wasn’t yet three hours old and one of the nation’s best teams (if not the best) was already in peril.
Cornerstone (Mich.) brought a 30-3 record to the College of the Ozarks, but 18-win Pacific Union had the Golden Eagles down 25 at halftime and was in the midst of shocking the nation.
In this tournament, the margin between losing early or advancing to the national championship is razor thin. Unfortunately, no program realizes that today more so than Saint Francis. But that painful realization should be the fuel which drives the Cougar program through the next 12 months.
The Cougars played their way into the Sweet 16 before losing 66-58 to Cornerstone and it showed that theirs is a program that is clearly capable of competing with the best in the nation, despite the early defeat.
Cornerstone spent the last 20 minutes of that opening game demonstrating why it is an elite program, as it never panicked and eventually rallied for a six-point win. The Golden Eagles have since ridden that momentum through Monday’s 69-57 semifinal win over Bellevue (Neb.) and will play for the national championship against Union (Ky.) tonight.
“Teams can always come back,” Cornerstone forward Kyle Steigenga would say after leading his team to a come-from-behind win over Saint Francis. “Every team is good from this point on.”
The Cougars certainly were “good,” but they have had to sit all weekend and watch the Golden Eagles, as well as Crossroads League rival Indiana Wesleyan, two teams that the Cougars played head-to-head with, advance to the Final Four. This, knowing full well, it could have been them.
The Wildcats lost 92-80 to Union in Monday’s semifinal.
“Cornerstone has great players and we have great players,” Saint Francis coach Chad LaCross said. “Unfortunately, they made a few more plays.”
A “few more plays” was all that separated Saint Francis from another run to the Final Four and that should never be forgotten by LaCross and his players as they pursue the 2018 tournament (no, it is not too early to think about that).
The Cougars trailed Cornerstone by 15 less than 11 minutes into the game, but fought back to lead late in the second half.
In earlier games with Indiana Wesleyan, Saint Francis led by 17 in the second half in one game, 12 in another, but managed to lose both.
In a third game with the Wildcats, a throw-in (calling it a shot is being too kind) by Indiana Wesleyan at the buzzer downed the Cougars. Yes, Saint Francis found ways to lose all of those games, but to be fair; it also found ways to be in a position to win them.
Saint Francis could point to a number of factors that caused its season to end prematurely: poor free throw shooting, a lack of offensive production late, and not boxing out Cornerstone center Sam Vander Sluis (17 rebounds) are among those, and each will need to be addressed in the off-season. However, what should also be taken from the defeat, and the ensuing frustration of watching Cornerstone have success since, is that the game truly was a matter of two comparable teams battling and by rule one had to lose.
“It was two great programs,” veteran Cornerstone coach Kim Elders said of his team and Saint Francis. “They know how to win. We know how to win. We’ve played each other a lot in this tournament. They have a great program.”
It will be gut-wrenching for those within the Saint Francis program to sit and watch Cornerstone play tonight, but LaCross ought to make every single returning player do so. It will make any conquest in the 2018 tournament that much sweeter.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.