POINT LOOKOUT, Mo. — Despite an 8:30 a.m. local time tip-off, the University of Saint Francis’ final game of the season was no yawner.
The 15th-ranked Cougars had second-ranked Cornerstone University by four but the Golden Eagles rejected the USF upset bid 66-58 in the second round of the NAIA Championship on Friday morning.
This was an exceptionally difficult loss to accept considering the way the Cougars (23-10) charged back from a 15-point deficit to take a 39-35 lead with 16:49 to play in the second half. The Cougars outscored CU 10-0 to open the second half with senior Kyle Sovine tying the score at 35 with a 3-pointer, Bryce Lienhoop muscling inside for the go-ahead basket, 37-35, with 17:23 to play and Sovine putting USF in front by four, 39-35 with 16:49 to play.
After a CU timeout at 16:44, the Eagles (31-3) got a Kyle Steigenga 3-pointer at 16:25 and the two teams traded baskets Cory Cox nailed a 3-pointer with 2:36 to play. That 3-pointer opened up a 60-56 CU lead and started a 7-0 CU run that thwarted USF’s final hopes to complete the upset in a game that started at 8:30 a.m. local time.
Sovine, one of four seniors donning a USF uniform for a final time, finished with 22 points, 18 in the second half. Kegan Comer finished his final game for the Cougars with eight points and Brogan Gary and Kendan Lewis also closed out their careers.
“I felt fine, I left it all out there, I felt like all of our guys left it all on the floor, they just hit a few more shots than us,” Sovine said in the post-game interview room.
There was no sugar-coating the USF start. CU played like each player drank two Red Bulls before the game and the Golden Eagles opened up 15-point lead, 27-12, with 7:46 to play in the first half.
“We started off and we weren’t very good on either end,” USF Head Coach Chad LaCross observed. “I thought we settled down and played. We crawled our way back to six points and then came out and got after it defensively (early in the second half). Offensively we were able to attack some of the things we felt like were an advantage to us. You look at free throws. Those were big down the stretch. We go 5-for-11, probably miss two or three front ends of one-and-ones and in a close game, that makes a difference.”
The Cougars didn’t get to the line in the first half and CU only shot three free throws making all three. But in the second half while CU made 13-of-15 from the free-throw line, USF missed six of 11 free throws including the front end of two bonus opportunities and LaCross stared at that line no doubt wishing he could burn it off the page.