MARION – This was no meeting of strangers Tuesday night, with the Crossroads League women’s title on the line. More like a meeting of squabbling siblings here in Luckey Arena, with No. 1 Indiana Wesleyan at one end of the scorer’s table and No. 2 Saint Francis on the other.
So, of course, like all sibling rivalries, it ended in that great philosophical debate: No, you can’t vs. Yes, I can.
No, Saint Francis couldn’t possibly win, not after an 18 1/2 -minute funk in which it squeezed out just two field goals; not after Indiana Wesleyan outscored the Cougars by 19 points from the 4:18 mark of the first half to 7:48 of the second.
Yes, Saint Francis could win, and did, 54-48, rallying late to end a 35-game home winning streak for Wesleyan and beat the Wildcats in tournament play for only the second time in eight tries, and for the first time in the last four meetings.
Hoisting a conference trophy rarely gets sweeter.
It really was a battle. We had to battle the whole game, said Skylarr Shurn, who scored 17 of her game-high 21 points in the second half.
It’s a big game and I’m just glad we were able to pull it off, added Meghan Slusher, whose putback and free throw with a minute left gave the Cougars the lead for good at 50-48.
For the past four years, this has always been a good game between the two of us, Slusher added. And so coming here under this amount of pressure, it’s huge.
And, true to form between these two, it was a tug of war.
An 18-4 run opened a 23-11 gap for Saint Francis (30-3) with 5:41 to play in the first half, and then the basket closed for business for the Cougars.
They went scoreless across the last 4:16 of the half as Wesleyan (30-3) trimmed the margin to 25-20, then continued their run of futility in the second half.
Enter the Saint Francis press, which turned a 42-35 deficit into a 43-42 lead in less than a minute and a half, setting the table for a 19-6 run across the last 7:48 that delivered an astounding win.
The Cougars shot just 35 percent and made only 9 of 26 shots in the second half, but their pressure forced 21 Wesleyan turnovers and that turned the game.
We’re not the biggest, strongest team, but we’re quick and we went to our press and got some steals and got our confidence back, Saint Francis coach Gary Andrews said. I thought our defense holding them to 48 points on their home floor, that’s what won the game for us.
That and figuring out a way to turn the tables on a team that had beaten the Cougars by two in Marion 19 days ago.
I thought we battled, Andrews said. We both know each other so well. Both teams are so great defensively, so it’s really hard to run something that the other team hasn’t seen.