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Ben Smith

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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Crossroads League Player of the Year Skylarr Shurn leads Saint Francis in scoring, assists and steals.

Last defeat motivates St. Francis

Wilson

– Thirty-three victories along, it’s an “L” that drives them. Sort of.

It happened on the afternoon of March 9, 2013, a Saturday, at roughly 6 p.m. local time. It was the quarterfinal round of the NAIA Division II national basketball tournament, Saint Francis against Northwestern (Iowa), a 4 p.m. tip. Saint Francis, champions of the Crossroads League, was 32-3 and the No. 1 seed in its bracket. Northwestern was 25-7 and the No. 2 seed.

Two hours later, or just shy, Northwestern was 26-7. And Saint Francis was going home, having fallen 87-77.

Three days after that, Indiana Wesleyan, whom the Cougars had beaten to win the Crossroads tournament, was the national champion.

To say that still haunts the unbeaten, top-ranked Cougars would be saying too much. To say they haven’t thought about it as “W” has piled atop “W” this winter, however, would be saying far too little.

“I think we’ve talked about how we wanted to get further than where we were,” standout guard Jenelle Wilson said the other night, as the Cougars hoisted a second straight Crossroads League trophy and everyone’s thoughts turned to the NAIA Nationals, which begin Wednesday. “But we didn’t really dwell on that at all. We would mention it. We’d say, ‘OK, we’re gonna get further this year, we’re gonna make it to the end.’ So we didn’t dwell on that, but it definitely was mentioned.”

Which is to say, it’s not as cut-and-dried as all that, because these things never are. Wilson will say the Cougars “became tougher” from last year’s loss, but the toughness was there, anyway. You don’t get to be 33-0 without it. You don’t maintain the sort of tunnel vision it takes to get to there, the unwavering focus and plain stubbornness that sustains you through all those minutes and games and weeks and months.

“We want to win the national championship,” Saint Francis coach Gary Andrews points out. “Just like last year. But this team’s been really good about focusing one game at a time, and we’re not gonna worry about anything else. Whoever we play, we’re just gonna go out there and just play them one game at a time. We know if we go out there and play our best, we’ll be hard to beat.”

Or impossible, which has been the case so far.

This is a team anchored by a spectacular backcourt – Wilson and Crossroads League Player of the Year Skylarr Shurn are where everything begins for the Cougars, combining for an astounding 104 points, 21 rebounds, 12 assists and 12 steals in their last two games – but not solely dependent on it. Five different players have led them in scoring at one time or another this year. Shurn leads them in scoring, steals and assists, but a freshman (Paige Frisch) leads them in 3-pointers. Yet another player (Kalah Baer) leads them in rebounding. Yet another (Brooke Ridley) lead them in blocked shots.

“We have the balance and we have the toughness, and we have just done everything we can, everything in our power to get where we are,” Wilson says.

And, yes, that also means not forgetting the late afternoon of March 9, 2013. Even if they don’t dwell on it, it’s there, contributing its own bit of fuel to an engine that hasn’t missed a stroke this year.

“I think that definitely has had an impact on this team this year, especially for the seniors,” Wilson admits. “This is our last chance. I mean, this is the last time we get to go to nationals, and the last chance to prove to everybody we do have what it takes.”

Or in other words: Good luck proving we don’t.

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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