For the first time this season St. Francis walked off a basketball court with a loss when Robbinsdale Copper (8-5, 3-0) won the highly-anticipated North Suburban Conference contest in St. Francis 85-68 Jan. 10.
St. Francis (11-1, 3-1) did its best to contain one of the state’s top junior players in Rashad Vaughn, who still managed a game-high 29 points, but Saints coach Ryan Hauge praised his team’s effort in the first half and for most of the second half. “We were in control in the first half and led by eight points and did a good job on [defending] Vaughn,” he said as Hawks teammate Lavar McCullough had 24 points.
“Vaughn is a special kid. He’s the best player I’ve ever coached against, but the kid who really hurt us was Lavar. He hadn’t shown that he was as consistent of a shooter as he was tonight.”
Hauge was impressed once again by the turnout in the stands.
“I’ve been around St. Francis for 10 years now and that was the most packed I’ve seen the gym,” he said. “We had a full varsity crowd watch the JV game. It was fun, for sure.”
Both teams were at the top of the still young conference standings as both clubs entered with perfect records. Cooper, at 3-0, joins Spring Lake Park and St. Louis Park as the remaining undefeated teams, while St. Francis joins Columbia Heights with one-loss and an 8-3 overall record, tied for fourth place.
The Saints ended the first half with three turnovers in the final 45 seconds as the Hawks took a 41-37 lead into the break. St. Francis led by eight points with nine minutes left in the opening half before failing to score, despite getting the ball inside on four straight possessions. Vaughn turned those turnovers into three-pointers which proved to be costly for the Saints in the end.
St. Francis turned the ball over another three times less than two minutes into the second half, which meant seven turnovers in eight possessions. They finished the game with 13 turnovers.
The Saints played without starting junior guard Austin Carlson, who missed the game with the flu. “That hurt us because he’s one more guy who can get to the rim for us and force other teams to plan for,” Hauge said.
Carlson has averaged 9.6 points per game but orchestrated the offense. “That was a negative [not to have him], but we shortened our bench so instead of nine we played eight,” Hauge said.
Junior Nate Svihel scored 12 points in place of Carlson. “Nate’s a great player who played exceptionally hard tonight and is a good shooter,” he said. “If he has space and his feet are set, he’ll make some shots like he did tonight.”
Svihel was second on the team only to sophomore Blake Moreno, who continued to turn heads with another double-double of 28 points and 15 rebounds.
One half of the Saints version of the twin towers (with junior Jake Johnson) was able to exploit the Hawks defense, but Johnson was held to a season-low six points as the primary focus of the defensive effort.
“We have two bigs and they’re really good,” Hauge said, expecting Johnson to perform better next time. “Blake was the man tonight and he kept us in the game.”
Moreno’s ability to get to the rim helped him force the Hawks to make a decision on who to guard. Johnson’s shown his ability to hit shot from the outside while getting to the rim when the situation presented itself. “Blake does one thing well and that’s to get to the rim,” Hauge said.
As for Johnson and Moreno drawing attention from college coaches, he said, “They’re being noticed and aren’t really under the radar but it’s still really early on.”
Hauge said his team had the right perspective after its first loss of the season. “We remembered what it was like to lose again,” he said. “They accomplished something there with 11 wins and they haven’t been in a situation like this much.”
He took part of the blame, not putting the kids in better position during the game to counter Cooper at times, but Hauge said, “It’s one game. It’s supposed to hurt and they like winning more than losing. That’s a good thing.”
St. Francis opened the new year with two close victories, including a one-point win at Fridley 58-57 Jan. 4, then returned home to top Totino-Grace 61-59 Jan. 8.
The Saints overcame a six-point deficit at Fridley as Johnson and Gabe Nelson had 15 and 12 points, respectively, while outpacing Fridley 37-30 in the second half for the conference win.
Four days later against Totino-Grace, Johnson led the Saints with 17 points, Carlson had 13 points and Nelson added 10 points. Cody Wald had just four points, but he hit a few clutch free throws down the stretch to preserve the win.
St. Francis will put its record to the test with four tough games before the end of January. The Saints face Irondale (3-8, 0-3) Jan. 18; travel to Columbia Heights (8-3, 2-1) Jan. 22; St. Louis Park (9-3, 3-0) Jan. 25 and Spring Lake Park (8-4, 3-0) Jan. 29.