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St. Francis guard Ryan Coyle felt his free-throw shooting hadn't been up to par lately so in preparation for Wednesday's Class 3A regional boys basketball showdown against Nazareth, the junior spent a lot of time working on his foul shots in the shoot around before the game. Practice sure made perfect for Coyle and his teammates.
The Spartans did not miss from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter, and that proved to be one of the decisive factors as they pulled off a 42-39 upset win over the host Roadrunners in La Grange Park.
In the final eight minutes of the game, St. Francis made all 12 of its free throws, led by 6 by Coyle, 4 from Nick Donati and a pair by Michael Scholl. For the entire contest the team was a stellar 18 of 19 from the foul line.
"We had a shootaround before our game and we all focused on making our free throws," Coyle said. "I personally took about 100 free throws before the game because my free throws hadn't been that great lately. I knew that this game would come down to free throws."
Coyle led all scorers with 23 points while Donati chipped in 10 points, all foul shots. The Spartans (15-11) will play Riverside-Brookfield at Nazareth for the Nazareth regional championship at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
"The kids played tough," said St. Francis coach Shawn Healy. "They hit big throws when the game was on the line."
"In the postseason defense, rebounding and free throws win games," added Nazareth coach John Bonk.
For St. Francis, the win not only kept its season alive. It also was a bit of sweet revenge. The Roadrunners romped the visiting Spartans 60-44 on Dec. 12. In that contest Nazareth drilled 3-pointers on its first 4 possessions to take a 12-0 lead and put its guests on their heels.
But on Wednesday the Roadrunners (18-8) were ice cold from the field, missing their first 10 shots from behind the 3-point arc. In the first half Nazareth shot only 19 percent from the field. The Spartans weren't that much better, shooting 30 percent. The play of Coyle did help them take a 14-9 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Following a 3-pointer from the top of the key by Coyle and 2 free throws by Donati, St. Francis built its biggest lead of the game 21-12, with 4:50 to play in the third quarter. The Roadrunners kept it close, however, thanks to strong inside play by forward Ryan Powers. The senior finished the game with a team-high 19 points, pulled down 18 rebounds and blocked 4 shots.
In the waning moments Nazareth's sharpshooters awoke. Matt Behrendt and John Bonk hit 3-pointers to kept the hosts within a point on two occasions in the final :47.6 seconds of the game. The Spartans kept their distance thanks to 4 free throws by Coyle in the final 19.7 seconds.
"This is what we expect of him," Healy said of Coyle. "This is type of game where you could see it in his body language. He wanted the ball in his hands. I couldn't be more proud of the way he performed."
Added Donati: "This was a special win. Everyone on our team seemed to feed off their crowd and our crowd. We were the underdogs so we had nothing to lose."