Saint Francis is on to the semifinals of the Crossroads League Tournament. The No. 1 team in the country awaits.
David Ejah scored 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds and Antwaan Cushingberry added 20 points and eight assists to lead the fourth-seeded Cougars to a 90-74 victory over No. 5 seed Grace in the first round of the conference tournament Wednesday at the Hutzell Athletic Center.
“I just love the way we’re playing the last month of the season,” Cougars coach Chad LaCross said. “We’re playing together.”
The victory sends Saint Francis (23-7), winners of six in a row, into the semifinals Saturday, where it will face top seed Indiana Wesleyan (29-1) – and reigning NAIA National Player of the Year Kyle Mangas – which beat No. 8 seed Taylor 74-66 on Wednesday.
The Cougars’ third matchup against Grace this season – the teams split the first two – was tight for the first 10 minutes, and when Blackhawk Christian graduate Frankie Davidson knocked in a jumper with 9:47 left in the opening half, the Lancers trailed just 21-18.
Davidson had 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
Much of the rest of the first half belonged to Ejah. The 6-foot-6 Carroll graduate scored 15 of the Cougars’ next 19 points, including a pair of 3-pointers and some strong finishes around the basket. He also stole a rebound from a Lancer and threw down a monster one-handed dunk that got the Cougars’ bench on its feet.
When the dust settled on the sophomore’s outburst, Saint Francis led 40-30 and it was 46-37 at halftime. Ejah had 21 points in the opening 20 minutes on 9-for-10 shooting.
“I was just staying aggressive the whole game, that’s what the team wanted me to do in order for us to be successful,” Ejah said. “That would open up a lot of things for other guys, so that’s what I had to do.”
LaCross reiterated that he wants Ejah to play in attack mode.
“When he’s active and engaged and locked in like I felt like he was all game tonight, he’s pretty good,” LaCross said of Ejah. “He can do things athletically that we just don’t have anyone else that can do.”
In an effort to contain Ejah, the Lancers switched to a zone defense near the end of the first half and maintained it early in the second period. The Cougars stagnated somewhat against the new defense, but Cushingberry, Blackhawk graduate Jalan Mull and Carroll graduate Dan McKeeman all drained 3s in the opening minutes of the second half to keep USF in front.
Lance Dollison later nailed back-to-back shots from the outside to put the Cougars up 76-64 with 5:34 left and Grace did not threaten again.
Saint Francis shot 55.6%. Mull had 15 points and five assists.
Next up, Wesleyan, which has beaten the Cougars twice this season, including 100-83 on Jan. 30.
“To be the best you have to beat the best,” LaCross said. “And right now, (Wesleyan) is the best. They’re just so talented. ... But we’re playing at a much higher level and with much more confidence than we were the previous two times.”