FORT WAYNE – The postgame handshake line was moving briskly when the two coaches’ paths passed on the sideline.
With an extended hand, Grace’s Jim Kessler had the sympathetic eyes of the winning coach when all he could say to Saint Francis’ Chad LaCross was, Unbelievable. And that was it, as each man never broke stride.
But that is life in the Mid-Central Conference, where there is no slowing down, even though the basketball season is winding down.
Saint Francis (18-10, 9-7 MCC) is now tied with Marian, behind Grace (21-6, 11-5) and Indiana Wesleyan (19-9, 11-5) after its 89-87 loss to Grace in the Hutzell Center on Saturday.
Saint Francis and Grace both have two games remaining before the MCC tournament; Grace will be home to Bethel on Tuesday and at Taylor on Saturday, while Saint Francis will first be at Marian then at Mount Vernon Nazarene.
We came into the game, and we still had our sights on a conference championship, LaCross said. Obviously this is going to put us in a hole. But still, we still have a lot to play for – the MCC tournament, the national tournament, everything. We can’t let these last two games affect us.
He said last two games and not next two games, because Saturday was the second straight two-point loss for the Cougars, who fell to co-leader Indiana Wesleyan 72-70 four days earlier.
Saturday was time to get even, in more ways that one. A win would have placed the Cougars in a second-place tie with Grace and one game behind Indiana Wesleyan.
The only thing we can do is learn from these losses, said guard Qadr Owens, who led Saint Francis with 29 points. We went down by two both games. The biggest thing for us, as seniors, is to make sure the younger guys keep their heads up and get ready to battle for the next game.
Unless Saint Francis gets a home game for its tournament opener, Saturday could have been the last game at Hutzell for four seniors, including Owens and forward Kevin Dawson, who added 23 points an 10 rebounds.
Q’s a great player, Kessler said. He made some shots. I don’t know how you guard him any tighter, rather than just throw a net over his head or something. He completely made some really tough shots.
Owens’ last bucket came with 51 seconds remaining when his jump shot cut the Grace lead to 88-87.
With 6.6 seconds remaining, Grace senior Dayton Merrell dropped the first of two free throw attempts.
After a timeout, Merrell missed the second. But instead of Saint Francis grabbing the ball for a final attempt, Grace’s Elliot Smith tapped the ball out to Bruce Grimm Jr. as time ran out.
In the women’s game, Grace (18-10, 10-6) easily beat Saint Francis (17-11, 9-7), 57-41.