Stritch still the (No.) 1
According to the most recent NAIA Division II poll, only three men’s basketball teams in the nation are superior to St. Xavier University at the moment.
Much to the Cougars’ chagrin, one of those programs visited the Shannon Center Saturday afternoon. Even worse, it lived up to its lofty billing.
Defending national champion Cardinal Stritch owns the No. 1 ranking again this season, and it proved its worth against SXU. Having won an earlier Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference clash with the Cougars, the Wolves were unfazed by the hosts’ 14-point lead nine minutes into the first half.
Stritch closed to within four by the break, then used a second-half-opening 11-2 run that was punctuated by back-to-back 3-pointers to seize the lead away from SXU. With a 1-of-10 performance from 3-point land dogging them over the last 20 minutes, the Cougars were unable to overtake the Wolves and wound up suffering a 93-84 setback.
The loss snapped a 17-game win streak for No. 4 SXU (21-3, 11-2), which hadn’t fallen short against any foe since five days before Thanksgiving. That unbeaten stretch tied for the longest in school history, matching two others, one of which was pieced together last winter.
The Cougars’ defeat was the first pinned on them at home since Stritch prevailed 86-81 on Nov. 20, 2012.
Propping the Wolves up on this latest occasion was their depth. Their reserves outscored SXU’s 28-3, and one of their top performers — Tyler Semenas — was someone the Cougars hadn’t counted on as a difference-maker.
“He’s probably their fourth scorer [normally],” SXU coach Tom O’Malley said. “Later on, they did go to him, and he scored 20 of his 26 points in the second half. He had a tip-dunk, two other tips and a couple 3s.”
Three other Stritch players tallied in double digits, including Tony Smit, who finished with 17 points. Three of those markers came on a bucket with 3:12 left that extended the Wolves’ lead to 84-79.
“Our defense wasn’t entirely nonexistent,” O’Malley said. “We played good defense [there], but he hit a miracle shot over our biggest guy with one second left [on the possession clock].”
Derek Semenas’ layup and two Smit free throws extended Stritch’s edge to nine, and not enough time remained to have the Cougars stage a comeback. The Wolves hit 25-of-32 free throws on the day and 60 percent of their field-goal attempts, compared to SXU’s 16 made charity tosses and 50 percent accuracy from the floor.
Brad Karp, who had sat out last Wednesday’s game against Holy Cross with a sprained ankle, paced the Cougars with 25 points, nine rebounds, four steals and two assists. Former Stritch guard Michael Simpson, who had endured a nightmarish offensive performance in his initial meeting with his ex-teammates, improved here to a 21-point, eight-assist effort, and Josh Mawhorr (19 points on 7-of-9 shooting) also lent a big hand.
But except for Kyle Huppe’s 3-point basket that gave SXU that aforementioned 14-point advantage in the opening half, the Cougars’ nonstarters were also nonentities in a statistical sense. That became more of an issue since Jack Krieger was dealing with foul problems most of the way.
“We have a lot of faith in our bench, but they didn’t give us much,” O’Malley said. “We needed to get a little more help. Jack Krieger only played about nine minutes of the first half, and you don’t play with the same courage when you’re in foul trouble.
“I thought we did force a few things, particularly when the game got close [in the second half], because people try to do a little more than they have to. You cannot be in a hurry to catch up real quick. Sometimes you can do that against lesser teams — force the action — but we’ve got to be more patient to get the shot we want instead of taking the first one we get.”
One encouraging aspect to SXU athletes and coaches was the postgame comments of some Stritch players while the teams exchanged handshakes.
“They were saying, ‘We’ll see you guys again,’” O’Malley said. “I hope we get that chance.”
SXU was back at home this past Wednesday to host Purdue University Calumet. The Cougars visit Judson University on Saturday.
St. Xavier 57
Holy Cross 50
Without Karp available, the Cougars posted their lowest single-game point total of the year last Wednesday, but still managed to ease their way past the Saints in Indiana.
While O’Malley admitted that replacing Karp and what he typically provides SXU wasn’t easy, he also felt that Holy Cross deserved credit for creating a challenging environment.
“We played in an atmosphere that was conducive to the home team,” O’Malley said. “They’ve won 15 games, so you can’t go into their gym thinking lightly about them.
“You’ve got to make plays at the time they’re needed. At the end of the game, we had to play well, and we did.”
The Cougars weren’t too shabby at the beginning, either, as they racked up the contest’s first nine points and never trailed. The Saints did pull even at 36 with 12:08 left in the game, but an 11-4 spurt by SXU gave it a 47-40 lead at the 7:22 mark.
Four minutes later, the hosts were back within one before Kreiger knocked down two jumpers and Simpson buried a pair of free throws to finally put Holy Cross away. The duo combined for 30 points, and Simpson augmented his 16 points with a team-high four assists. Krieger made two steals.
Also a factor was Mawhorr, who checked in with 12 points, six rebounds and two blocks. — Ken Karrson
More noteworthy than the No. 8-ranked Cougars’ two victories last week that ran their winning streak to 16 games was the impact Caitlin McMahon had on both contests.
The sophomore forward, who is typically overshadowed by junior teammates Morgan Stuut and Suzie Broski, took her own turn in the spotlight. In SXU’s 79-76 triumph over Holy Cross last Wednesday, McMahon registered a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds and, for good measure, hit a key throw in the final seconds to preserve the Cougars’ victory.
And that was only the beginning. Three days later versus No. 6 Cardinal Stritch, McMahon became just the third female Cougar ever to produce a triple-double. Her 11 points, 14 rebounds and school-record 10 blocks propelled SXU (21-3, 11-1) to a 75-63 win and into sole possession of first place in the CCAC standings.
“It really was a monster week for Caitlin McMahon,” Cougars coach Bob Hallberg said. “She’s been fairly consistent, even though I haven’t played her as many minutes all the time because I have several post players that I rotate with her. She certainly came into her own this [past] week and just had two big back-to-back games for us.
“And she’s taking some pride in rebounding, which makes a good rebounder. I told her, as the tallest person on the team, that besides scoring she really has to focus on rebounding. And her blocked shots against Cardinal Stritch were really big.”
McMahon, Maloree Johnson and Mikayla Leyden all converted at the line for SXU in the closing moments against Holy Cross, which staved off the feisty Saints once and for all.
The Cougars used a 13-4 run in the last six minutes of the first half to establish a 10-point lead at intermission, but Holy Cross responded with its own 14-4 surge in the first four minutes of the second half to pull even at 41-all.
The Saints eventually went ahead 50-44 before SXU used two 3-point baskets from redshirt freshman Sidney Prasse and McMahon’s three-point play as the fuel for a 15-4 run that restored an edge for the locals. The Cougars’ lead grew to 69-60 with less than five minutes remaining, but Holy Cross chipped away at its deficit and narrowed the gap to 70-67 at the 3:28 mark.
Thanks to a couple SXU turnovers, the Saints got even closer, but the Cougars’ trio of charity tosses finally settled the verdict. Stuut (23 points, eight rebounds) and Prasse (11 points) were SXU’s statistical leaders along with McMahon.
Hallberg wasn’t surprised that Holy Cross pushed his team so hard.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know that you have to play well every night when you’re on the road in February,” he said. “The pressure is off a lot of teams in the middle of the pack. They’re not going anywhere, [so] they just go out there and enjoy themselves.
“I have to give Holy Cross a lot of credit. It wasn’t that we played poorly; I just think they had an exceptional ballgame. They actually outplayed us, and we were fortunate to escape with a three-point victory.”
Hallberg did admit, however, that the Saints’ cause was aided when Stuut exited with a leg injury after a Holy Cross player fell on her.
“Morgan missed the last four minutes of the game with us up just 70-65, and that was a key loss with the game on the line,” he said. “Fortunately, we had several other players step up and do a nice job at the free-throw line. It could have gone either way.”
Along with McMahon, Hallberg thought Prasse was a big reason the Cougars ultimately prospered.
“We were down one point when I brought her in the game,” he said. “She hit back-to-back 3-point baskets, so we went from one point down to five points up very quickly. That was big for us.”
Stuut was back in action on Saturday, and she very nearly joined McMahon in posting a triple-double. As it was, she offered strong support for her teammate with 16 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists.
Also getting into the scoring act for the Cougars were Niara Harris and Broski, who notched 15 and 12 points, respectively. Broski complemented her offense with five rebounds.
Another critical component in SXU’s success was its defense, which limited the Wolves to a 32 percent success rate from the field. In delivering a solid exhibition on both ends of the floor, the Cougars once again proved correct their coach’s theory that there is no carryover from one game to the next.
“When the jump ball goes up, it starts all over again,” Hallberg said. “Whether you win or lose on Wednesday, it has nothing to do with the game on Saturday. So we responded with a very good game against a team that was 20-2 and tied with us for the conference lead.”
SXU held early leads of 5-0, 12-4 and 17-6 as Harris and Jordan Brandt both drilled 3-pointers along the way. The Cougars’ advantage grew to 16 points following Harris’ three-point play with 6:11 remaining in the half and they were ahead 43-29 at intermission.
Stritch slipped behind by as many as 23 points in the second half before mounting a comeback. A 21-8 tear over an eight-minute span had the Wolves within eight, but free throws by Broski and a Harris layup finally quelled the uprising.
“Niara is a great penetrator and she had a really great Saturday for us,” Hallberg said. “We [also] took a lot of 3-point shots and made 42 percent of them. We kept them down for a long time, but they came back later and made it a closer game.”
Not only did the win put SXU alone atop the CCAC, but by beating Stritch, the Cougars likely impressed the voters, too.
“It’s hard to figure the math out,” said Hallberg, whose team dropped two positions in the NAIA poll after winning its previous two contests by a combined 26 points. “But we should regain a few spots with another good week and a win over a team that was ranked two spots higher than us.” — Anthony Nasella
Tied after four sets, the Cougars were unable to close the deal on their first victory of the season last Tuesday night. Instead, host Dominican University outlasted them 15-25, 25-19, 25-21, 24-26, 15-10 at the Igini Sports Forum in River Forest.
Sophomore middle blocker Sam Kull supplied SXU with match bests of 14 kills and five service aces, while senior outside hitter Justin Cousin and freshman Sean Barry both put down 11 kills. Barry also served three aces and had eight digs.
Other contributors for the Cougars included senior middle blocker J.T. O’Connell (nine kills, team-high seven total blocks) and freshman Dan O’Keefe (team-best 11 digs). Despite the notable individual performances, SXU was often stifled at the net as Dominican racked up 33 total blocks.
Barry produced another strong effort last Wednesday versus No. 6-ranked St. Ambrose University, but his 10 kills and one ace weren’t enough to keep the host Cougars from suffering their sixth consecutive defeat.
The Fighting Bees chalked up a 25-17, 25-15, 25-15 triumph at the Shannon Center, in part because of a .342 attack percentage. St. Ambrose registered 37 kills while making only 10 hitting errors and had seven aces. Ryan Mehl (14 kills) was the Bees’ main man.
O’Connell (eight kills, assisted block) and senior setter Jacob Siska (26 assists, five digs, three total blocks) were other influential figures for SXU.
Playing for the third time in four days, the Cougars couldn’t turn their fortunes around on Friday, as No. 3-ranked Missouri Baptist University nailed down a straight-sets win, 25-16, 25-15, 25-18, at the Shannon Center.
Kull paced SXU with seven kills and two assisted blocks, but the Cougars managed only four more kills than hitting errors (25-21) as a team. By contrast, Missouri Baptist’s .338 attack percentage was built on 37 kills and just 11 errors. Mico Janicijevic led the Spartans with nine kills.
O’Connell (six kills, solo block), freshman setter Moises Lopez (17 assists, four digs) and Cousin (five kills, five digs) also lent a hand for the Cougars (0-7), who took the court again this past Tuesday in Plymouth, Wis., against NCAA Division III Lakeland College.
California native Michael Perez recently signed a letter of intent to continue his education and athletic career at SXU in the fall.
Perez, who plans to pursue a business degree, was a standout golfer at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento. He was twice named his team’s most improved player, was a top-10 finisher at the 2013 USGA Public Links Qualifier and was a medalist at the 2012 Northern California Golf Association Series II Tournament.
“We are very excited to have Michael Perez join our men’s golf program,” Cougars coach Mike Mandakas said. “Michael is a very talented student-athlete who has a promising collegiate golf career ahead of him. I can’t wait to see him compete as a Cougar next season.”