St. Francis never did play like an underdog, and Marshall had learned not to expect one.
"We didn't take them lightly coming into the game just because we knew they beat two of the top competitors in our conference," said Marshall coach Henry Cotton, whose team plays in the tough Chicago Public League Red West. "And that team, they can play in our conference. If they were in our conference, they could compete in our conference."
The eighth-seeded Spartans gave No. 2 Marshall all it could handle at Friday's Class 3A Glenbard South sectional final, falling 45-41 in front of a capacity, mostly pro-St. Francis crowd in Glen Ellyn. The Spartans had defeated No. 1 Orr in the regional final and No. 5 Crane in the sectional semifinals.
"It was a tough game, but when teams get to this point, every team is tough, and that's what I told my kids," Cotton added. "... And they're a great team, a great, disciplined team. We lost a little focus there, we came back."
"We had a lot of confidence going into the playoffs," added St. Francis senior Ryan Coyle, who became the program's all-time leading scorer with a third-quarter 3-pointer. "A couple of bounces here or there and maybe we get the win. But I couldn't be more proud of the guys in that locker room. Coaches and players, we played our hearts out every single game."
Starting out in a box-and-one defense against St. Francis (20-8) and Coyle, Marshall seemed to confuse the Spartans briefly, but St. Francis figured out the gimmick defense and gained its composure. St. Francis took its first lead of the game midway through the second quarter on a Coyle bucket and trailed 17-16 at halftime.
Marshall (24-7) ratched up the pressure in the third quarter, however, and three consecutive steals led to Commandos baskets and a 27-21 lead with 3:41 left in the third. Marshall ended the quarter up 32-25, the biggest lead of the game.
"There were a couple of opportunities that I thought Marshall had an opportunity to take that 5-to-7-to-9-point lead, and we just kept battling back, getting it back to 3, back 1, tying it up," Ward said.
The Spartans made that Marshall lead disappear quickly in the fourth quarter, tying the game at 32 with 6:03 left on a Coyle layup off a Zach Roswold assist. But Korbin McClain gave the Commandos the lead back for good with a pair of free throws at the 5:15 mark.
"It just goes back to we felt there were things we could do offensively and we couldn't get into them," Ward said. "When a play or a possession looks good, it looks like you can just keep doing it, and on the bench we have a tendency to think that too. Then you come back down the floor and there's an absolute stud guarding the ball. And I thought our ballhandlers did a heck of a job."
Marshall forced 17 St. Francis turnovers in the game.
"They're a great defensive team, very quick, very fast, and their hands are all in there," Coyle added. "It was hard bringing up the ball against that pressure, but we dealt with it and we did the best we could and we left it on the court."
Coyle finished with 16 points, 9 coming in the fourth quarter, and 9 rebounds. Roswold added 10 points and 6 rebounds, and fellow senior Brian Spahn scored 9.
Milton Doyle led Marshall with 13 points, including a pair of free throws with 20.2 seconds left to put the lead out of reach, leaving the Spartans with a raft of memories.
"That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Ward said, "to play a sectional championship with that type of a crowd and that type of support. It's enough to make you cry."