Three points is all that separated Evan Henry, Bryce Lienhoop and the rest of the St. Francis men’s basketball team from the NAIA Division II Championship two seasons ago.
Winning a high school state title wasn’t in the cards for Henry or Lienhoop, but they were only one possession away from experiencing something even greater. Both players remember what it was like being on the opposite sides of the same goal when they competed against each other in the Columbus East-Columbus North crosstown rivalry in high school.
Lienhoop wore orange for the Olympians, while Henry remained covered in Bull Dogs blue. Continued postseason success for one player inevitably meant failure for the other.
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Those days are long gone for the two childhood friends, as two of the rivalry’s top players joined forces after high school at St. Francis. And their partnership has proved a successful one for the Cougars program.
“We’ve accumulated a lot of wins during our four years being here and have had a really good time playing,” Lienhoop said.
St. Francis has posted a 108-32 record since Lienhoop and Henry arrived on campus at the start of the 2014-15 season. They both were sophomores when the Cougars lost 69-66 to Indiana Wesleyan in the 2016 championship game and have been working to get back to the dance ever since.
The two seniors have one final ride left on their quest to winning a national championship, and the journey starts at 7:45 p.m. today when the No. 7-ranked Cougars face Keiser University (Florida) in the first round of the national tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
St. Francis hasn’t seen Keiser since beating it in the third round of the tournament during it’s run two years ago.
“We did really well against them,” Lienhoop said. “We’re not really familiar with them, but we know them a little bit. We got really better these last few practices, and I feel really confident going into this first tournament game.”
The Cougars are going to need solid performances out of their All-Crossroads League first-team honoree and leading scorer in Lienhoop, as well as honorable mention recipient and leading 3-point shooter in Henry. Lienhoop’s 18.3 points per game on 61 percent shooting, mixed with Henry’s 44 percent efficiency from 3-point range could be what helps springboard the team.
St. Francis holds a 25-8 record this season and is the only team that has beaten more than seven teams ranked in the top 25. The Cougars have 10 top-25 wins on the year.
“I feel like we’ve prepared our players to play against the best teams in the country,” St. Francis coach Chad LaCross said. “… When we have seniors like Bryce and Evan, along with a couple others, you always feel confident going into games that you can find a way to win.”
Henry said being so close to a national title and not winning it hurt, but said it has given them the motivation they need knowing the goal they have in mind is something that can be reached. It’s not easy waking up at 5 a.m. for practice in August and September, but that’s what gives them the confidence in knowing they can make a deep postseason run, Henry said.
“It would be a dream come true,” Henry said of winning a national championship. “Every senior that played a sport wants to go out their final year winning a national championship, so it would just be an unbelievable accomplishment.”
No matter how far St. Francis goes, Lienhoop and Henry are closing in on their final days of putting on a Cougars uniform. LaCross understands how important both seniors are to the team’s on-court success, but said the program will be losing much more than good basketball talent.
“You always hope that when you’re recruiting young men out of high school that they become not only outstanding players like Evan and Bryce are, but outstanding young men,” LaCross said. “You don’t know how fortunate we are to not only have great basketball players like Evan and Bryce, but what they’ve also done in the classroom as role models for our university and program. … It’ll be crazy not to have those guys around next year.”
Name: Bryce Lienhoop
High School: Columbus East
College: St. Francis
Key Stats: 18.3 ppg; 7.9 rpg; 61 percent shooting from the field.
Name: Evan Henry
High School: Columbus North
College: St. Francis
Key Stats: 9.0 ppg; 44 percent 3-point shooting; 91 percent free-throw shooting.