FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WFFT) - The No. 24 University of Saint Francis Cougars (15-5; 2-5 Crossroads) encountered their biggest challenge of the year thus far when they played host to the No. 1 Indiana Wesleyan University Wildcats (20-1; 8-1 Crossroads) Monday evening in Hutzell Athletic Center, and despite a tremendous fight, they fell 81-72.
The Cougars came out of the gate strong, answering the Wildcats shot for shot before pulling ahead to a 15-8 lead in the first several minutes. Meanwhile, the Cougars defense continued to stall Indiana Wesleyan's offensive attack, allowing just 20 points in the game's first 15 minutes.
The lead grew up to as big as 10 points for the Cougars when they led the Wildcats 30-20 with five minutes remaining in the first half. The Wildcats did manage to chip away at the lead before halftime, and the Cougars finished the first with a 39-34 lead.
As the second half got underway, the Cougars picked up where they left off and continued to built upon their lead. They extended their lead back to eight points over a minute into the frame, but that was the most they would lead by for the remainder of the game.
Down but not out, the Wildcats showed why they are the number one team in the NAIA. Both teams spent the next several minutes battling back and forth with neither side budging. A three-point shot made by junior guard Antwaan Cushingberry put Saint Francis back ahead 54-50, but the Wildcats answered back with a made layup of their own in the very next posession.
With the Cougars now leading 56-54 with just over 10 minutes remaining, the Wildcats found an open shot and sophomore guard Spencer Piercefield got the ball, found an open shot, and drained a three to put the Wildcats ahead 57-56, and the lead would never be relinquished as the Cougars have suffered their third straight loss.
"Tonight I felt like we showed signs of progress," Head Coach Chad LaCross said despite the loss. "We had a much better effort on the boards, I think David (Ejah) did as good of a job as we could've asked of him. They went on their big run, I felt like we took a couple quick shots offensively that led to a few easy transitions, and they capitalized on it."
Throughout the game, the Cougars shot 45 percent from the floor, 36 percent from beyond the arc, and 61 percent from the free throw line. Cushingberry led the way again with 20 points scored, seven assists, and went 4-for-6 from beyond the arc. Three other Cougars scored double digits: junior guard Jalan Mull (14), sophomore guard Dan McKeeman (10), and sophomore forward David Ejah (13).
The Cougars resume play on Saturday afternoon when they play host to the Goshen College Maple Leafs (3-16; 1-9 Crossroads) in Hutzell Athletic Center beginning at 1:00 pm.