Cougars win CCAC men’s hoops tournament
Not one, but two surprises awaited St. Xavier University basketball fans in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Tournaments.
Only one was welcomed, however.
That would have been the men’s team’s upset of NAIA Division II top-ranked Cardinal Stritch on the latter’s home court. By beating the Wolves 85-74 on Saturday in Milwaukee, the Cougars not only avenged two regular-season losses, but claimed the conference tourney title for themselves.
SXU’s women weren’t as fortunate. After winning the regular-season CCAC North Division championship, the Cougars were unable to play for the tournament crown. Olivet Nazarene threw up that roadblock in Friday’s semifinal matchup, which the Tigers captured by a 91-89 score when Miranda Geever hit a runner just before the final buzzer.
SXU, with its top-five national ranking, will still receive an invitation to the NAIA Division II Tournament, which begins Wednesday in Sioux City, Iowa.
The Cougars men, meanwhile, will travel to the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo. Each SXU club was to learn the identity of its opening-round foe this past Wednesday.
That gave men’s coach Tom O’Malley and his athletes a little time to enjoy their biggest triumph of the season, which snapped Stritch’s 18-game unbeaten streak. The Wolves, who had last lost at Panella Court on Jan 19, 2013, stopped a 17-game Cougars win streak earlier this season.
“I’m floating,” O’Malley joked about his postgame reaction to Saturday’s conquest. “It was a good one. I was elated for the kids.”
Those kids made Stritch have to play from behind right away. No. 7-ranked SXU (29-4) tallied 15 unanswered points during a 5 ½-minute span of the opening half to seize an 18-3 lead.
Five players contributed to the Cougars’ getaway. Jack Krieger hit three layups, Stagg alumnus Darius Draper scored on a dunk and jumper, and former Wolves player Michael Simpson buried a 3-pointer to lead the assault. While SXU was racking up points, Stritch committed five turnovers and missed four shots.
Simpson, who had struggled in his initial return to Milwaukee, was just fine here as he tossed in 17 points. He was one of three double-digit scorers for the Cougars, along with Krieger (25 points on 9-of-15 shooting) and Brad Karp (19 points).
“He played like a champ,” O’Malley said of Simpson, who drilled 11-of-12 free throws, including six in a row in the closing moments that staved off the Wolves’ final comeback bid.
“We got off to a great start [because] we did a lot of things we haven’t been doing. I felt we were pretty well prepared and I think we were hyped up [at the outset] — the kids felt they had to come out that way.”
And all that energy was properly channeled.
“We were a little more patient offensively,” O’Malley said. “We ran our sets and we were on target with all our shots. We were closer to what we normally shoot.”
O’Malley’s standard game goals are for SXU to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point territory and 80 percent at the line. Against Stritch, those respective numbers stood at 56, 50 and 79 percent. Another positive for the Cougars was their rather meager total of 12 turnovers.
Not surprisingly, the Wolves didn’t go down easily. They battled back from a 50-30 deficit with a 13-2 run that was culminated by Derek Semenas’ 3-point basket. Chad Mazur’s long ball then drew the hosts within 59-56 with 9:03 left before two Karp layups and Krieger’s jumper restored some breathing room for SXU.
One more Krieger hoop extended the Cougars’ edge back out to 10 points (71-61) with 4:10 remaining, but Mazur’s 3-pointer soon had Stritch within 79-74. Simpson then finished the Wolves off at the free-throw line.
Semenas (19 points), Mazur (14) and Tony Smit (16) paced Stritch, but O’Malley was happy with his guys’ ability to render Tyler Semenas something of a nonfactor this time around. In the Wolves’ victory over SXU in Chicago, he torched the Cougars with 26 points and 11 rebounds; those stats dipped to six and five, respectively, this time around.
“I think we did a much better job on the Semenas kid and they got only eight points from their big guys,” O’Malley said of Stritch. “We got a lot of worthwhile minutes from our bench, and they gave us 13 points and six rebounds.
“The biggest thing [about this win] is I think it’ll give our kids a lot of confidence. It’s a refreshing thought going into the [national] tournament like this, but it’s not going to make it any easier.
“When you’re ranked, the bull’s-eye’s on you all season long, but now is the big time. It only takes five wins now.”
SXU’s 29th triumph equaled last year’s total. O’Malley has coached three 30-win Cougars teams during his 17 seasons at the helm.
St. Xavier 73
Three sizable runs were key elements for the Cougars Friday night, as they used those to dispatch the Lakers in a semifinal matchup in Milwaukee.
Karp’s 3-ball kicked off the first of those spurts, which occurred with seven minutes left in the opening half. SXU broke a 20-all tie with a 13-5 run, then went on a 16-6 tear early in the second half to snap another deadlock. Karp’s layup culminated the surge.
The Cougars finally delivered the knockout punch with a 13-6 run in the last three minutes. A pair of Krieger 3-pointers beat back Roosevelt’s challenge after the Lakers had climbed within 57-51.
Karp, recently chosen for the All-CCAC first team, had 20 points and seven rebounds to lead SXU. Krieger (18 points), Simpson (16 points, 10 assists) and Josh Mawhorr (nine points, seven rebounds) also chipped in for the Cougars, who fired away at a 51 percent clip, dished out 16 assists and committed only nine turnovers.
Despite statistics that seemingly indicated the contrary, O’Malley felt SXU had been at less than its best. He wasn’t the only one who thought so — an announcer for the Stritch-Robert Morris University semifinal clash stated after that game was over that “if St. Xavier plays the way they did tonight, they’re going to have a hard time [on Saturday].”
“That was the way I felt myself,” O’Malley said with a chuckle. “I didn’t feel we played very well against Roosevelt, and I thought both Cardinal Stritch and Robert Morris played extremely well.”
Were the Cougars guilty of perhaps looking beyond the Lakers to their possible date with the Wolves? O’Malley didn’t believe so.
“We talk about, ‘Don’t think ahead -- just think about the next game in front of you,’” he said. “From a Friday night to a Saturday afternoon doesn’t give you much time to do anything else.”
St. Xavier 84
Univ. of St. Francis 61
One game lacking drama was the Cougars’ tourney opener last Wednesday against the Fighting Saints at the Shannon Center. SXU saw to that by netting the game’s first 16 points, seven of which came from Karp (25 points, six rebounds, five assists).
With Simpson (13 points, nine assists, five rebounds, three steals), Mawhorr (13 points, six rebounds) and Krieger (10 points, five assists) giving their offense even more juice, the Cougars were never challenged. They out-rebounded the University of St. Francis 39-21 and canned 56 percent of their field-goal attempts. — Ken Karrson
While posting a solid regular-season record of 26-4, the Cougars encountered very few disappointing moments.
The shocking loss to Olivet on Friday night at the PUC Fitness Center in Hammond, Ind., certainly qualified as one, however.
“Most teams would love to be 27-5 at the end of the season, but we really wanted to be in the championship [game] of the conference tournament,” SXU coach Bob Hallberg said. “It didn’t happen, [so] now we just need to get our confidence level back up for the national tournament.”
The semifinal contest proved to be a tale of two halves, as the Cougars were in control for most of the first half. Their 56 percent shooting laid the groundwork for a 54-47 halftime advantage, but the situation changed dramatically after the break. SXU went 14-of-38 from the field over the last 20 minutes.
“That was a tough loss,” Hallberg said. “The whole key for the ballgame was we went into a lull in the second half. We missed some easy shots under the basket and a couple of key free throws, [and] they were hot from the 3-point line.”
Junior forward Morgan Stuut, who repeated as the CCAC Player of the Year, had another huge game, totaling 33 points and 15 rebounds for her 24th double-double of the campaign. Along the way, she broke the single-season scoring record for SXU women as her total of 667 points moved her past Erin Hannemann, who tallied 646 points during the 2008-09 season.
Stuut also became the first female Cougar to eclipse 400 rebounds in a season. She currently has 414.
Junior guard Suzie Broski had a big night for SXU as well with 27 points on 12-of-23 shooting. Senior guard Niara Harris added 13 points.
“I was very happy to see Niara come off the bench against Olivet,” Hallberg said. “She had been sick and didn’t play in the quarterfinal game. We need her guard play and offense.”
Things looked promising early for the Cougars after they built a 20-12 lead on a layup by Broski. Harris’ 3-pointer gave SXU a 47-30 edge with four minutes left in the first half, but the Tigers closed out the session with a 17-7 run, which was fed by five 3-pointers.
Layups by Stuut and Broski early in the second half pushed the Cougars’ lead back into double digits, but Olivet used a 10-4 surge to cut the deficit to five (64-59) with just over 13 minutes to play.
“We didn’t have the offense clicking like we did in the first half,” Hallberg said. “Olivet did nothing spectacular; they were consistent both halves.
“Our downfall was the second half. We shouldn’t have been in that position, resulting in poor execution, ill-advised passes and unforced turnovers.”
A 3-pointer by Tigers guard Liz Bart tied the score at 74-all with 6:32 remaining and the game stayed tight the rest of the way, which set the stage for Geever’s late-game heroics. Olivet finished with 17 3-point baskets in 39 attempts, a 44 percent success rate.
“Three-point shooting has always been Olivet’s strength,” Hallberg said. “They were especially effective in that part of the game. We just would have liked to have ended the conference tournament on a more positive note.”
St. Xavier 64
Calumet College 42
The Crimson Wave were no match for the Cougars last Wednesday, as the latter rolled to a victory in the tournament quarterfinals at the Shannon Center.
Broski tossed in 18 points for SXU, which boasted four double-figure scorers in all. Also stepping forward were freshman guard Sidney Prasse (13 points, including three 3-pointers), Stuut (12 points, game-best 14 rebounds) and Jordan Brandt (11 points, four assists).
Defense was also a huge ingredient in the locals’ mastery. The Cougars limited Calumet College of St. Joseph to 17 second-half points, but the Wave were in serious trouble long before that.
SXU broke from the gate with an 11-3 burst and held leads of as many as 15 points in several instances before intermission. The Cougars were ahead by only nine (34-25) at halftime, but a 16-1 run that got underway near the 11-minute mark allowed them to pull away for good.
“We didn’t get out to a fast start again, but then we exploded for a 15-2 spurt that put us in control,” Hallberg said. “Some of our younger players have really progressed offensively during the course of the season.
“Against Calumet College, we were highly successful, and sometimes I don’t know if I should put my [best] defensive or offensive combination on the floor. Sometimes I question myself. Thankfully, we have a week of practices to look at combinations for the NAIA national tournament.”
Due to splitting up their squad the weekend of Feb. 22, the Cougars took part in two different meets to complete their final tune-up before the NAIA meet.
Some SXU athletes traveled to Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich., where junior Janis Pastars’ national-qualifying time in the 3,000-meter run provided the highlight. He registered an “A”-qualifying clocking of 8 minutes, 39.7 seconds. Also turning in solid performances were sophomore Rexford Wiafe in the 800 (1:56.83, just .18 seconds off the qualifying standard) and John Stancato in the 60- and 200-dashes (7.16 and 22.53, respectively).
“I feel very bad that Rex missed the qualifying mark in the 800,” Cougars coach Ed McAllister said. “He has worked extremely hard and deserved to make it to nationals. [And] Janis keeps getting stronger with each race.”
SXU’s remaining athletes competed at the University of Chicago’s Margaret Bradley Invitational and achieved similar results. Leading the way was freshman Abel Hernandez, who won the 5,000-run in 15:38.
“Abel showed that he is well on the way to making a mark for himself in the future,” McAllister said.
Junior Brandon Gentry gave the Cougars a fourth place in the triple jump (12.49 meters).
SXU will be represented in the NAIA Indoor Track & Field National Championships, which begin today in Geneva, Ohio, by three runners. Brian Corcoran and Shane Kenney will both be part of the 1,000 field, while Pastars qualified in the mile run.
Middle blockers Sam Kull and J.T. O’Connell both produced solid performances, but the Cougars were unable to ride those to victory against No. 6-ranked Clarke University last Tuesday night. Instead, the Crusaders swept past SXU in three sets (25-16, 25-22, 25-16) at the Kehl Center in Dubuque, Iowa.
Kull put down 10 kills and served two aces on the Cougars’ behalf, while O’Connell finished with nine kills and a pair of assisted blocks. Freshman setter Moises Lopez totaled 29 assists, three digs and two block assists to further aid SXU and senior right-side hitter Jacob Siska chipped in four kills, five digs and an assisted block.
Clarke racked up 40 kills — eight more than the Cougars — and committed just seven hitting errors for an impressive attack percentage of .458.
The Cougars’ school-record-tying 16 service aces enabled them to cruise to a 25-8, 25-15, 25-11 Great Lakes Division road victory over Cincinnati Christian College on Saturday afternoon.
Kull notched five of the aces, to go along with five kills and seven total blocks. O’Connell put down nine kills and did not make any hitting errors, while Lopez dished out 19 assists and had two assisted blocks. Also chipping in for SXU (3-11, 3-3) was freshman Dan O’Keefe, who registered 10 digs.
The Cougars finished with 22 kills and just seven errors for an attack percentage of .326.
SXU hosts Lourdes (Ohio) University in another conference match on Saturday at 4 p.m.