---- — Keith Haske had just led his St. Francis Gladiators to a Class C basketball regional championship Wednesday night and he was savoring the moment afterwards with well wishers.
He was talking about his team's character, his team's defense, and football.
Football? That's right. Haske was quick to credit the school's football program for his basketball team's success.
"We learn from football at St. Francis," he said. "Defense gets you to where you want to be."
Right now, it's taking the Gladiators to Petoskey for a quarterfinal next Tuesday night.
It was defense that enabled the Gladiators to turn back Clare in the regional final at Traverse City West, 68-52.
St. Francis did not have a stellar game offensively. Not by a long shot. But the Gladiators certainly got the job done defensively.
After the Pioneers shot the ball extremely well in taking an 18-13 first quarter lead, the Gladiators relentless pressure and tight man coverage held Clare in check the rest of the game. The Pioneers had fewer open looks as the game progressed, and when they did, they had trouble knocking them down. Taylor Ardis, who hurt St. Francis with nine points in the first eight minutes, had two the rest of the night. The Pioneers struggled at the foul line, too. Maybe the fast-paced tempo just wore them down.
With its outside game faltering, Clare's best option was center James Wezensky, who scored 15 of his team's 34 points over the final three quarters.
"I think we frustrated them a little with our press," St. Francis center Sean Sheldon said. "They turned it over a couple times. You could tell (in the second half) they were getting tired. We kept our rotation going. We kept fresh legs in there. Towards the end of the game, our depth really started to pay off."
Especially defensively. Haske made defense a major point of emphasis the last couple months and that decision has paid off.
"The kids took that to heart," he said. "Every one of our kids bought into it. We're so engrossed with what we're doing right now (defensively). I'm proud of that."
Over the last 14 games, St. Francis is allowing just 45 points a game. The Gladiators held Clare 11 points under its scoring average.
The Gladiators learned something about themselves in the regional, too. They were tested. It did not come easy. St. Francis showed poise and character in coming back to beat Boyne City on Monday and then battling back from a quick 7-0 deficit to dispatch Clare.
"Obviously, Monday night was a gut check," Haske said. "We couldn't get the ball in the hole. I thought our kids showed so much heart to win that game. I mean that was a struggle all night. I thought we played a lot more like we're capable of (Wednesday). We didn't shoot it well again, but we played with tremendous effort."
Now, the Gladiators are one win away from playing at Michigan State's Breslin Center and three wins away from a state title.
But don't tell that to Sheldon.
"It's one game at a time," he said. "One game at a time."