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Ben Smith

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If you go
Who: Huntington at Saint Francis
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Hutzell Athletic Center
Admission: $6 adults, $3 students with ID
Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Skylarr Shurn is averaging 20 points per game for the 20-0 Cougars, who are the No. 1 team in NAIA Division II.

Perfect record makes Cougars target

– Tonight it’s the Huntington Foresters, coming in looking for that bull’s eye, glowing all neon-like. Finding it easily, because … well, it’s glowing all neon-like.

You can perhaps wish otherwise sometimes, if you’re the Saint Francis women’s basketball team. But wish is all you can do.

If you’re the Cougars, your résumé precedes you these days, screaming at the top of its lungs. You can’t just hide 20-0 under a bushel, or tell it to pipe down. You can’t make anyone forget that you’re the No. 1 NAIA Division II team in America. Everyone’s going to see and hear that business coming from 10 miles off.

“I say this probably before every game: We have a huge target on our back,” says guard Skylarr Shurn, the Cougars’ leading scorer. “Every night teams are going to give the No. 1 team their best games.”

Here’s the silver lining in that: It forces the Cougars to reply with their best game.

After staying clean on the loss side for 20 straight games – and, going back to last season, 52 of their last 56 – they’ve gotten a little bit stubborn about this, something Marian discovered just the other day. The Knights had the Cougars in their house, and they had No. 1 down by 13 midway through the first half. And yet, somehow, they couldn’t make it stick.

Shurn hung 20 points on them, her season average, and Kalah Baer added 18. Freshman Paige Frisch, the outside threat that was the only piece the Cougars were lacking, threw in 15 and five 3s. And the Cougars rallied to win 73-66.

It was typical of the balance that’s Saint Francis’ most potent weapon, especially with Michigan State transfer Akyah Taylor out of the lineup while she appeals an academic issue that has made her ineligible.

“We’re playing really, really well together, and very unselfish,” Cougars coach Gary Andrews says. “We don’t worry about who’s scoring and things like that. We’re just worrying about taking what the defense gives us and finding a way to win.”

So far, so perfect. The Cougars are 9-0 at home, 9-0 away and 2-0 on a neutral court, and no one’s come closer to them than seven points since a 104-103 overtime victory over Roosevelt on Nov. 17. Other than that, their closest game was a six-point win over Cornerstone.

Tunnel vision has been key to all that.

“We just want to take it one game at a time,” says Andrews, and if that sets off the cliché alarm, it’s nonetheless how the Cougars see things these days. “What I tell the kids is that everybody’s going to give us their best shot and anybody can beat us on any given night, so we just have to prepare and practice and play and worry about the next game after that.”

Well, the next game is Huntington, and here we go again. The Foresters are 14-5, 6-2 in the Crossroads League, and they’re ranked 27th. They’ve also won 10 of their last 12 games and would love to make it 11 of 13, which would make Saint Francis 20-1.

Good luck with that.

“It’s kind of surprising, but I think we’ve earned it,” says Shurn of the 20-0 record. “We’ve worked hard since way back in August when we first started, and now our hard work is paying off. We share the ball really well, a lot of people are knocking down shots, we’re getting the ball up the floor to people who can shoot, we’re going to the basket, defense … it’s all just coming together.

“So, 20-0. It’s a good thing.”

The best.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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