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No. 7 IWU men host No. 2 Saint Francis in critical Crossroads matchup

BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

Just over a month remains in the college basketball regular season, and as always, the next game is the most important one for the Indiana Wesleyan and Taylor men’s and women’s teams.

Mid-January brings teams into the heart of the Crossroads League schedule, and all have just 11 games remaining over the next month to expose the contenders and pretenders in the chase for the league title. 

If Indiana Wesleyan’s No. 7-ranked men’s team has any designs on winning the Crossroads League championship, the Wildcats likely need to figure out a way to win today in Luckey Arena, as No. 2 Saint Francis comes to Marion.

The Cougars are one of hottest teams in NAIA Division II men’s basketball.

Saint Francis (17-2, 7-0 in CL) dropped two of its first three games to start the season - Nov. to 3 No. 1 Cornerstone (66-63) and Nov. 4 against No. 5 Indiana Tech (69-65) - but hasn’t lost since. The Cougars bring a 16-game winning streak in to IWU, and the Wildcats (14-5, 5-2) need a win to keep from falling three games behind Saint Francis in the league standings.

“It’s a must-win game,” said IWU coach Greg Tonagel. “I haven’t looked too far ahead to say to win the league you’ve gotta win this game to win league, but we’ve put ourselves in a position where we’ve just got to be able to defend home court.”

The Wildcats have shrugged off a three-game losing streak that culminated with a disappointing home-league loss to Mount Vernon Nazarene (84-79) on Jan 3 with a convincing road win at No. 11 Bethel (91-70) and a rugged 90-81 win over cross-county rival Taylor on Tuesday.

Tonagel thinks the issues that led to the losing streak have been identified and corrected.  

“It continues to be about us getting our house in order and it starts with playing hard,” Tonagel said. “I think when we went through that three game lull it was easily identified that we just weren’t playing hard so getting us to play at a level, which is now the last two games what we’ve seen.

“Against Saint Francis that isn’t enough,” he added. “You’ve got to play hard and you’ve got to execute.”

Execution has certainly been a strength for the Cougars, and that’s why it will be essential for IWU to try and match that today.

Senior Bryce Lienhoop, a front-runner for Crossroads Player of the Year, leads Saint Francis scoring at 17.6 points and pulling down 8.2 rebounds per game. Senior Derek Hinen is scoring 17.1 points and Chandler White chips in 11.8 points a night.

But Saint Francis’ success so far has been about the sum of all its parts.

“They’re very well coached and got a really nice group of players,” Tonagel said. “This year, I think more than any in my recent memory, they really fit. They’re just playing well together so you can’t just take away one thing from them.”

While the Cougars have a very seasoned group, Indiana Wesleyan has a group that is still learning to play together, and for a couple of its leaders, freshmen Kyle Mangas and Grant Smith, still learning the college game in general.

Mangas is currently second in league in scoring at 20.4 points per game while Smith is adding just under 10 points per contest. Junior Kansas Jayhawks transfer Evan Maxwell is putting in 16 points and leads IWU pulling down seven boards a game. 

“Three of our top five are new to the program so to get them to understand who we are takes awhile,” Tonagel said. “It’s about playing your best basketball towards the end of the season and I like the direction we’re headed in right now.”

Taylor University’s men’s team (11-8, 2-5 in CL) finds itself sitting in eighth place in the league standings and needs to put together a strong finish if it hopes to qualify for the national tournament for the second straight year. The Trojans are at Goshen today. 

The Trojan women inserted themselves squarely into the race for the Crossroads League title Wednesday with a 68-56 win over No. 13 Indiana Wesleyan, handing the Wildcats their first loss in league play this season. 

Indiana Wesleyan (14-5, 6-1) is tied with No. 5 Marian (17-2, 6-1) at the top and owns a win over the Knights, while No. 22 Taylor (12-7, 5-2) is tied for second with Mount Vernon Nazarene (13-6, 5-2). 

Taylor is surging behind junior Kendall Bradbury, who currently leads the all of NAIA DII in scoring at just under 25 points per game. She is also third in the nation by gathering more than 11 rebounds per game. Eastbrook grad and current Huntington player, Brooke Saylor leads the nation in rebounding at 12.11 a game. 

A concern of Trojans’ first-year coach Jody Martinez is his team letting second half leads either dwindle or disappear altogether, and that is a factor that has contribute to some of Taylor’s losses, including last Saturday when Marian overcame a 12-point second-half deficit to beat Taylor, 75-66.

“It was a big win on Wednesday, not just because it was (Indiana) Wesleyan, but more importantly because we’ve been losing leads,” Martinez said. “We were able to hold on the last run that Wesleyan put on us so it was good for them in terms of maturity, of winning games at the end.”

Of Taylor’s seven losses, its held double-digit leads in the second half of four, and all seven have come to teams ranked or receiving votes in the top 25 of NAIA DI or DII. Thanks in large part to its schedule strength, Taylor entered the top 25 for the first time this season earlier in the week.

“I told the girls the motivation is to keep moving up, not to get complacent,” Martinez said. “I could care less about the rankings until February, because that’s when the national (tournament) seedings are determined. Our strength of schedule has impressed the national raters to get us in the top 25 even with seven losses.”

The Trojans travel to Goshen (1-18, 0-7) for a 1 p.m. tip today.

Indiana Wesleyan’s women host Saint Francis (11-8, 3-4) at 1 p.m.