For a little more than a half Monday night, Saint Francis looked capable of knocking off the No. 1 team in the country.
Then Kyle Mangas got hot.
The Warsaw graduate and reigning NAIA Division II Player of the Year poured in 33 points, including 21 in the second half, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished eight assists to lead top-ranked Indiana Wesleyan to an 81-72 victory at the Hutzell Athletic Center.
Antwaan Cushingberry led the No. 24 Cougars (15-5, 2-5 Crossroads League) with 20 points and seven assists. Carroll graduate David Ejah had 13 points and 15 rebounds.
“We talk to our guys about trying to get better every day in practice and work towards being the best team we can be and I thought we were there for a large majority of the game,” Cougars coach Chad LaCross said. “Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the way we played, I think we’re making progress. ... Unfortunately we just played a really good team tonight.”
Saint Francis led 39-34 at halftime and maintained the advantage early in the second half, answering every Indiana Wesleyan run with a big shot. Cushingberry drained a 3 from the corner with 13:07 left to put the Cougars ahead 54-50.
The game’s turning point came in the next five minutes. Wesleyan’s Spencer Piercefield drained a pair of 3-pointers during a 12-4 run, one of which put the Wildcats (20-1, 8-1) in front for good at 57-56 and forced a Saint Francis timeout.
Mangas nailed a nifty stepback jumper with 8:09 to put his team ahead 64-58.
“First half, we started slow, they came out firing,” Mangas said. “They played really fast, and we were just on our heels. We went into halftime and we came out and knew we had to compete better. I think it started on the glass, we got inside-out and started to hit some inside-out 3s, which was big.”
The Wildcats continued to extend their lead and pushed it to 76-63 when Mangas finished a short shot in the paint with 4:28 to play. Ejah drilled a 3 to give the Cougars some hope, but Mangas slammed the door with a 3 of his own at the 1:51 mark.
“Mangas just comes up with big plays, he’s done it his whole career,” LaCross said. “He’s just coming off ball screens and he just reads the floor so well, so if he doesn’t hurt you with scoring himself, he’s going to make the right read.”
Saint Francis limited the Wildcats’ three-time All-American early in the game and led by as many as 10 in the first half as Mangas missed seven of his first eight attempts from the field. He got going with a couple of 3s and an old-fashioned three-point play in a 1:47 stretch late in the opening half and then erupted in the second half.
The senior, who came in scoring 29.3 points per contest, made 10 of his final 15 field goal attempts.
“My teammates just kept telling me to shoot,” Mangas said. “I kept cutting hard off screens and trying to get downhill. That’s just how I play and shots just fell.”
With students back in class at Saint Francis, the Cougars had their biggest crowd of the season, allowing students to fill the home bleachers up to 25% capacity. When Ejah made a 3 to put his team in front 30-20, the crowd made the gym sound packed.
“It’s nice, anytime we can get a crowd there and get some excitement, I thought they were into it,” LaCross said. “When you come and play and compete in front of your home fans and give you that little edge, it’s almost been a scrimmage atmosphere every game leading up to this.”
Note: Before the game, Mangas was named the Crossroads League Player of the Week after scoring 43 points in a win over Huntington last week.