Saint Francis men’s basketball coach Chad LaCross isn’t being cocky when he says that his Cougars are "talented enough to go out and compete and really make a run" through the upcoming NAIA Division II National Tournament.He is simply being honest, because his team is talented enough to do just that. That doesn’t mean it will, but the Cougars have – at times – shown the ability to play with any team in the country.
Saint Francis (22-10) earned a four seed into the tourney and will face five-seed Oregon Tech (24-9) March 8 at 1 p.m. (EST). The tournament will be played at the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo.
To get to the national championship game for the fourth time in the last eight seasons, Saint Francis will have to play to its ability consistently. It has essentially done that over the past five weeks."I think that our players should be really confident," LaCross told The News-Sentinel. "The way that we have played over the past few weeks has shown that we can grind close games out and win."
A pair of games against Crossroads League champion Bethel captures the 2016-17 season for Saint Francis.
In January, the Cougars collapsed late in a road loss to the Pilots and that was their seventh defeat in 11 games. What was once a season with limitless potential (the Cougars were the No. 1-ranked NAIA team for the first six weeks of the season) had spiraled out of control.
However, the same two teams met a month later and the Cougars defended Bethel well and handed it just its second loss in conference play all year. A week later, Saint Francis had Indiana Wesleyan in trouble at Marion before Wildcat guard Bob Peters threw in (literally) a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat the Cougars.
"Bethel was ranked third in the country," LaCross said, "and we held them to 70 points. We did that and then held Indiana Wesleyan to 73. Defensively, we are locked in."
That defensive attitude has helped Saint Francis win 7 of its last 10 games and is being led by senior guard Kegan Comer, who is playing in his fourth national tournament.
"Kegan has done a really good job of leading us through this stretch," LaCross said. "He has been a lot more active defensively."
LaCross also noted the play of frontcourt players Kyle Sovine (6-foot-9, fifth-year senior) and Bryce Lienhoop (6-foot-6, junior). The two combined for 35 points and 17 rebounds in that win against Bethel, while the Cougar defense held the Pilots to a meager 41 percent shooting.
"The Bethel game was a really physical game," LaCross said. "Our guys didn’t back down. We really took it to them on both ends of the floor."
The 2017 tournament will be the sixth for the Saint Francis program in the past seven seasons. The Cougars won the 2010 national championship and played for the title in 2011 and 2016.
LaCross’ group has experience on the national stage and he believes his team is peaking at the right time.
"You see them have success," LaCross said, "and you see the guys’ confidence just continue to rise. That is how we are playing right now. Our guys feel like they can beat anybody now."
Indiana well represented
There will be no shortage of games at the tournament for Indiana basketball fans to follow. Of the 32 teams competing for the national championship, seven are from this state.
Other games include:
• Bethel (29-4) vs. Calumet (17-13)
• Eastern Oregon (23-8) vs. IU-Southeast (24-6)
• IU-East (26-7) vs. Reinhardt (Ga.) (22-9)
• Indiana Wesleyan (26-7) vs. Corban (Ore.) (17-15)
• Taylor (20-11) vs. Warner (Fla.) (26-4)