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Degenkolb sparks Taylor comeback win

Taylor guard Mason Degenkolb splits two Saint Francis defenders Saturday afternoon to attempt a layup in the Crossroads League doubleheader. The Trojans men's and women's teams swept past the Cougars.

By CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

UPLAND — Saturday afternoon represented as important a step the Taylor University men’s basketball team has ever made in the Josh Andrews era.

Trailing 19 points late in the first half, the Trojans came all the way back and defeated No. 19-ranked Saint Francis for the first time in Andrews’ six-year tenure, 75-72 in Odle Arena. Junior guard Mason Degenkolb led the charge and equaled his career high with 33 points.

“That’s a remarkable win for us and a step forward,” Andrews said. “The perseverance our guys showed today was really impressive.”

The comeback win completed a Taylor sweep in the Crossroads League doubleheader with the 10th-ranked women earlier posting a 72-54 win over the No. 25 Cougars. Kendall Bradbury, NAIA Division II’s second-leading scorer, scored 25 points and hauled in 10 rebounds that led the Trojans to a fifth straight victory.

Taylor played a gritty brand of defense, especially over the final five minutes, that would have brought a smile from Paul Patterson, the hall of fame coach for whom the arena’s court is named. The Cougars were limited to 33 percent shooting and scored 28 second half points after scorching the nets at 63 percent in the opening half.

“We definitely led the way on the defensive end,” Degenkolb said. “Our team motto is ‘it starts on the defensive end’ and you can definitely tell it did for us today. We started out kind of sluggish in the first half and they got up 19, and we were able to get stops.

“On offense we were able to find the open man most of the time and just took good shots, and that’s what our team’s about - getting stops and find the open man on offense,” he added.

Taylor (10-8, 4-2 Crossroads League) regained the lead 69-67 on Ryan Robinson’s baseline 3-pointer after a kickout pass from Degenkolb with 5:22 to play. Both teams found scoring difficult until Degenkolb drained a pull-up jumper at 3:21, and Robinson converted both ends of a 1-and-1 free throw opportunity at 52 seconds and put the Trojans ahead 73-67.

Saint Francis (10-8, 3-3) went four minutes without scoring until Austin Compton’s drive at 44 seconds, closing its deficit to 73-69. Degenkolb hit another pull-up jumper at 17 seconds, but the Cougars’ Connor Lautzenheiser sank a 3-pointer just five seconds later that made it 75-72.

Degenkolb missed the front end of a 1-and-1, and the Cougars still had a chance to tie with a 3-pointer. Lautzenheiser’s trey from the top of the key rimmed out, and then Hunter Hollowell was well short on a desperation shot in the final second.

“We showed a lot of toughness,” Andrews said. “Wherever we were at as far as toughness and togetherness, we took a step forward today. So even if other things weren’t as pretty, you’re proud as a coach when your guys are competing like that.”

Jason Hubbard (four points) and Degenkolb (11) fueled an 11-0 run to end the opening half and trim the Trojans’ deficit to 44-36 at halftime. Saint Francis’ incredible first half shooting included 6-of-9 from 3-point range, with Hollowell draining all three of his attempts.

Andrews said the Trojans had trouble adjusting to Saint Francis’ size and physical play through much of the first half. Degenkolb was the one player who kept them in the game with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting.

“Mason Degenkolb led the charge before the half, and he pushed and willed us into a good ballgame,” Andrews said. “We came into the locker room at halftime and I could see our guys were ready to go. This was going to be a dogfight, and we knew it.”

Taylor then opened the second half with a 9-0 run and took its first lead 45-44 at 16:10 on Robinson’s 3-pointer after another pass from Degenkolb. The lead changed hands six times and was tied once in the second half.

Degenkolb finished 13-of-17 from the floor including 2-of-3 from 3-point range and made all but one of his six free throw attempts. He also passed out seven assists. Robinson followed with 14 points and James McCloud racked up a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

“(Saint Francis) switched the ball screens with their five men and our guards were able to take advantage of that and make good plays for ourselves and our teammates,” Degenkolb said. “I was able to hit some shots, and our teammates were able to hit some open shots and made (Saint Francis) really respect them on the perimeter and made the drives easier for the guards.”

Lautzenheiser scored 13 of his 20 points and Hollowell had all 11 of his points in the opening half. Compton contributed 15 points and nine rebounds and Jeffrey Reynolds added 10 points for the Cougars.

While the women’s game had the promise of a premier top 25 showdown, Saint Francis (11-7, 3-3) came in at a disadvantage with top scorer Kara Gerka (14.5 points) out since mid-December with tendinitis in her Achillis heal. Taylor (13-4, 4-2) never trailed after scoring five straight to open the game, although the Cougars managed a 19-all tie with 40.5 seconds left in the opening quarter.

Baskets from Aubrey Wright and Bradbury in the final two minutes put Taylor ahead 38-30 at halftime, and then the Trojans really turned up the defense to start the second half. The Cougars were 2-of-12 from the field and scored seven points, and an Abby Buchs basket gave the Trojans their first 20-point lead, 57-37, entering the fourth quarter.

“The third quarter was really good defensive effort,” Taylor women’s coach Jody Martinez said. “We have been holding teams below their average the majority of the season. We try to mix our defense up and make the other team think, are we in matchup zone or in a zone or a man-to-man trap or a man-to-man switch.

“... Then we tried to run transition and get them backpeddling because we have so many kids who can shoot the ‘3’,” Martinez added. “We knew if we posted up Kendall they would put people in the paint, so we worked on skip passes to get the ‘3s’ off and we made 11.”

Bradbury defeated Saint Francis’ double- and triple-teams to shoot 9-of-15 from the floor and connected on 6-of-7 free throws. Becca Buchs followed with 17 featuring 5-of-10 shooting from behind the 3-point arc, and twin sister Abby Buchs had 13 even with a subpar 1-of-7 shooting on 3-pointers.

“We’ve had a very strong second half mentality,” Bradbury said. “Sometimes our first halves we make a few turnovers, but we know we need to lock in and be a good third quarter team and come out stronger, and I think we’ve done that a lot lately.

“This game was one of the best ones. Saint Francis is a great team and kudos to them for playing as hard as they did and playing without Gerka. ... We just locked in and did what we need to do.”

Wright had an impressive game with 11 points with 3-of-6 on 3-pointers and the senior point guard also had seven assists and three steals.

“Coach has talked to me and said I got to step it up,” Wright said. “I’m a senior and this is my last go-around, and I just go as hard as I can on defense, offense, rebounding and passing - anything I can get my hands on and help the team.”

Sidney Crowe scored 14 and Emma Applegate 12 for Saint Francis.

Taylor turns its attention to a pair of games at cross-county rival Indiana Wesleyan. The men play at 7 p.m. Tuesday and the women at 7 p.m. Wednesday.