POINT LOOKOUT, Mo. – Any coach will tell you that he has to work with a different team each season. Every group brings its own set of unique dynamics, roles, attitudes, etc. However, veteran Saint Francis coach Chad LaCross believes he has coached a different team within this season.
“This is a completely different team than when we started,” LaCross said following his team’s NAIA National Tournament opening win over Oregon Tech Wednesday, “in a lot of ways.”
The Cougars (23-10) will face Cornerstone (31-3) Friday in the Sweet 16 at 9:30 a.m. (EST) at the College of the Ozarks.
Saint Francis has had to endure a rollercoaster of a season, which for LaCross and this program, isn’t typical. His team opened the year ranked number one in the nation and it played that way.
The Cougars won 11 straight games before December and were often dominating in doing so. However, over the next two months, Saint Francis lost more games (eight) than it won (five).
“We are very fortunate,” LaCross told The News-Sentinel recently about earning a bid to the national tournament, “especially after what we went through this year. Every team goes through ups and downs and our down lasted a little bit longer than it had in the last 10 years, probably.”
But it didn’t continue.
Saint Francis has now won seven of its last nine games and LaCross explained that it was easy to see why in the most recent victory.
“We’re playing really good basketball,” LaCross said. “We’re playing unselfish basketball. We’re playing to our strengths more than we did at the beginning.”
Senior guard Kegan Comer concurred following Wednesday’s game.
Comer has assumed the role of point guard this season after playing off of the ball throughout most of his career. He said the perimeter players will get offensive opportunities, it just will happen after first looking into the post for veterans Bryce Lienhoop and Kyle Sovine, which wasn’t happening as much early on.
“We know that we can get it to our bigs and they are going to make the right play,” Comer said. “They are either going to score the ball or kick it back out to our guards.
“To me, that is why I believe that we have been so successful. We understand our strengths, which is playing through the post.”
Perhaps it is not considered the Duke or North Carolina of the NAIA, but the Saint Francis men’s basketball program is getting pretty darn close.
The Cougars have played in the national tournament seven of the past nine years and advanced to the championship game three times (winning it in 2010).
The win over Oregon Tech gave LaCross’ program another milestone, which was the program’s 20th victory in the tournament.
“There are only nine teams in the country that can say that,” LaCross said.
To give that feat perspective, the NAIA National Tournament is limited to just 32 teams, so there are no easy tournament openers once a team gets here, and one can look no further than Cornerstone for an example of that.
The Golden Eagles are a national power, yet were down 25 points at halftime Wednesday to Pacific Union before rallying for a win. So winning any game at Branson is a challenge, let alone 20 of them.
“It is a credit, not only to these guys, but our past players,” LaCross said. “It’s been a lot of hard work, especially this year, when we had to answer ‘What’s wrong with the team?’
“Well, we’re pretty good. These guys finished the season great and to beat (Oregon Tech) shows the talent that we have and what we are capable of.”
There is no diminishing the presence that the four seniors have on the Saint Francis program. Three of those four (Sovine, Comer and Brogan Gary) got in Wednesday’s game and Sovine and Comer have been All-Crossroads League players. However, for a good portion of Wednesday’s win, LaCross had an entire unit on the court – beating a quality team – and every Cougar player in the game had eligibility remaining past this season.
“As the year has gone on,” LaCross said, “we have been able to rely on more and more guys.”
Junior forward Bryce Lienhoop is one of the NAIA’s best players as of today, let alone next season. He totaled a game-best 24 points and 14 rebounds, while sophomore Chandler White (10 points, five rebounds), junior Evan Henry (4 of 5 shooting from 3-point range), redshirt freshman Austin Compton (15 points in 23 minutes) and true freshman Connor Lautzenheiser (started and played 24 minutes) all helped Saint Francis.
“We have the same amount of confidence in everybody down the line,” Comer said. “We have so much love and confidence for each other. That is really, what I feel like, helps out the younger guys here at the national tournament. Just keep feeding them that confidence and putting it into their head.”
Fort Wayne repped well
Not only did Saint Francis represent the city of Fort Wayne successfully Wednesday, but a pair of Northrop High School alums played very well for IU East in the Red Wolves’ 10-point win over Reinhardt (Ga.).
Jacoby Claypool and Aaron Thomas each had double-doubles for IU East.
Claypool scored 16 points and dished out 10 assists to go with his six rebounds, while Thomas scored 12 points (on 5 of 5 shooting) and also grabbed 12 rebounds.
“Aaron is really coming into his own,” Red Wolf coach Mark Hester told The News-Sentinel following the win.