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Desperate Saint Francis hands IWU women second league loss

BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

Toughness is often an essential ingredient in winning Crossroads League basketball games and it was the biggest difference between NAIA Division II No. 13 Indiana Wesleyan and Saint Francis Saturday afternoon.

Saint Francis showed up at Luckey Arena somewhat in desperation mode, with a 3-4 league record and three full games behind the Wildcats and Marian for the top spot in the standings.

The Cougars played with that essential toughness, like a team that wasn’t ready to let their season slip away, and took an 82-68 win over IWU back to Fort Wayne. 

“They were the more desperate team,” IWU first-year coach Ethan Whaley said of Saint Francis. “We looked like a team that wants things handed to us. The tougher team, the more urgent team and the team that was more desperate won today.”

Saint Francis was the aggressor from the opening tip, a fact that wasn’t surprising to Whaley, but became more and more frustrating as the game wore on.

The Cougars led 17-14 with time winding down in the first quarter before IWU took advantage of a fortuitous bounce.

Saint Francis tried a long inbounds pass from the baseline to across mid-court on an out-of-bounds play with just a couple of seconds remaining, but the ball was knocked back into the Wildcats end where it was corralled by Katie Key who drained a long 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie it up at 17-all.

The Cougars’ physicality allowed them to start to take control of the contest in the second quarter. 

The two teams swapped leads eight times through the first 15 minutes of the first half, but the Wildcats took their last lead of the day at 26-24, on freshman Dayton Groninger’s basket about 5:30 from halftime. However, Saint Francis scored the next seven points to go up 31-26 before eventually taking a 39-34 lead to intermission. 

Whaley wasn’t surprised by how physical Saint Francis played, or really by anything the Cougars did against the Wildcats.

“That’s what they hang their hat on, they do a really good job of beating you up and making you uncomfortable in certain situations so tip your cap to them,” he said of the Cougars’ style of play.

“They run about two plays and then they run their ball screen continuity, but they’re good at it,” Whaley added. “It doesn’t matter what you do, if you play with that urgency, that desire, that desperation, you’re going to win a lot of games no matter what you’re running.”

One thing that may have caught the Wildcats off guard was the shooting prowess of Saint Francis guard Savannah Buck. Buck entered the game averaging less than eight points per contest and shooting less than 30 percent from 3-point range, but the 5-foot-6 Homestead product connected on 6-of-9 from long range and finished with 18 points. She also grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds.

Saint Francis also rolled out another Homestead grad, 6-foot freshman Lindley Kistler, who came off the Cougars bench to score 13 points in her first-ever appearance for USF. Sophomore Kara Gerka led Saint Francis with 25 points and Peru grad Josie Murphy chipped in with 11 points. 

The Cougars assumed full control in the third quarter, outscoring IWU 20-9 in the first seven minutes to take a 59-43 lead. The Wildcats closed their gap to 62-50 going into the fourth quarter, but would draw no closer than nine at 68-59 through the final 10 minutes.

Seniors Anna Imhoff and Brittany Washington were two of the bright spots for the Wildcats.

Fresh off her career-high 30 at Taylor on Wednesday, Imhoff continued to build a case for Crossroads League Player of the Year consideration by pouring in 25 points, blocking four shots and making two steals. Washington finished with 15 points, nine boards and six assists and both did all they could to keep IWU within striking distance.

It just wasn’t enough.

“Offensively, Anna and Brittany are playing really, really well. Our seniors are leading very, very well,” said Whaley. “It just feels like they need more help. We’ll get there. We’ve got some young kids that are filling spots they’re not used to filling, but now its time for them to step up.”

With the loss, Indiana Wesleyan (14-6, 6-2) falls into a second place Crossroads League tie with No. 22 Taylor (13-7, 6-2) after No. 5 Marian (18-2, 7-1) pulled out 61-60 win at Huntington Saturday. Taylor was an easy 84-40 winner at Goshen. Mount Vernon Nazarene stands at 5-2 in league play but had its game at Bethel postponed Saturday.

IWU could soon be bolstered by the return of junior post player Nicole Ignasiak (15.6 points, 8.9 rebounds). Ignasiak has missed the Wildcats last eight games with an injury, and IWU is just 4-4 without her 6-1 presence in the middle.

“We’re praying that it’s soon,” Whaley said of Ignasiak’s return. “I think she’ll gradually start to practice next week. From there it will become how she feels and then hopefully in the next two weeks we’ll have her on the floor.”

The Wildcats will host Grace and former Marion High School standout Vironnica Drake at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Indiana Wesleyan will try to rebound from back-to-back league losses and focus on getting tougher as a team. 

“We’ve got to play with a desperation, an urgency and a grit about our team that no matter what we face we’re going to overcome it,” Whaley said. Today it didn’t feel like we had the mentality to overcome, collectively. Some players did, but as a group I don’t feel like we had that. That’s obviously the focus moving forward. No matter what we face, we have to overcome it.”