GLEN ELLYN – The gym was bigger. The stakes were higher. The intensity was ratcheted up another couple of notches. And yet, the St. Francis boys basketball players were their same, level-headed selves.
Against all odds – and external expectations – the Spartans took down another city powerhouse, this time Crane, 64-51, in Tuesday’s IHSA Class 3A Glenbard South Sectional semifinal.
The confidence gained in the win over top-seeded Orr in the regional title game on Friday set the stage for what was perhaps St. Francis’ most complete performance of the season as Ryan Coyle again led the way with 26 points and 12 rebounds.
Don’t look now, but the Spartans (20-7) are two wins away from a trip to Peoria and the 3A Final Four.
“We are a 3A team but we have played a really rigorous schedule all year, including our league. But, you’re talking the highest level of Public League basketball that we have played back-to-back,” St. Francis coach Bob Ward said. “Each game has its own personality. As the personality begins to swing the way you want it, we are the aggressor offensively and defensively.”
St. Francis’ defense gave the Spartans some late breathing room after a back-and-forth battle for the first three quarters of the game.
The eighth-seeded Spartans led by as many as 10 several times before the fifth-seeded Cougars (18-7) pulled within 54-50 after Willie Conner knocked down a three with 1:47 to go.
A missed lay-up and a pair of off-target threes ended Crane’s night as the Spartans went 8-of-10 from the free-throw line to seal the win.
“We’re playing well right now and over the last month we’ve been getting better each week,” Ward said. “We knew we had to convert and get back defensively, which we did. We did it against Orr, we did it against Wheaton Academy (in the regional semifinal). So, converting defensively really kept it from going the other way.”
The tide began to turn in favor of St. Francis early in the fourth quarter. Up 41-36 after three, the Spartans went on a 10-4 run to start the fourth quarter.
Andrew Kimball and Jason Pisarski each hit a three during the run that saw St. Francis take a 51-41 lead with 5:12 remaining after two Pisarski free-throws.
Overall, the Spartans were 13 of 16 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter while getting nine of Brian Spahn’s 12 points in the second half.
Coyle, despite playing on a sore right ankle that was hurt in the win over Orr, led a balanced attack for St. Francis. The senior was still hobbling Tuesday but was huge when it mattered most against Crane, scoring 14 of his 26 points in the second half, including 8-of-10 from the free-throw line.
“After the win over Wheaton Academy, I felt like our preparation for Orr and how we matched up with them gave us a bunch of confidence coming into tonight,” Coyle said. “We knew they were a great team and were going to make some runs. Our whole point was to understand that they were going to make some runs and make sure it didn’t get too out of hand. We are playing our best ball at the right time of the year.”
The Cougars’ high-flying act never really got off the ground as Division I prospects Willie Conner and Kaylen Shane were held in check for most of the night. Conner was high for the Cougars with 12 while Shane was limited to just four.
“The game plan was to sag off the big guys and make sure they had to work for all of their points,” Coyle said. “I think Zach (Roswold) and I both, along with the guards helping down, made all their shots down low very difficult.”
The Spartans will meet the winner of tonight’s St. Joseph-Marshall game on Friday for the sectional title. A win would give St. Francis a berth in the Hoffman Estates Supersectional next Tuesday.