BY MIKE ECKERT
TRAVERSE CITY — St. Francis honored last season's Class C state runner-up basketball team with a banner prior to Tuesday's game.
When the game started, this season's Gladiators squad looked like a team poised for another long postseason run.
St. Francis got off to a hot start and never looked back for a 77-55 Lake Michigan Conference win over visiting Grayling.
"I thought that first half might have been the best two quarters we've played all year," St. Francis coach Keith Haske said. "We played smart, we played hard. They're a hard team to play against with the way they press and come after us. But our kids did a great job handling the ball and getting shots."
Second-ranked St. Francis moved to 16-0 with the win and 11-0 in the league with three games left. Grayling fell to 11-4 overall and 8-2 in the Lake Michigan Conference.
The Gladiators went back and forth with the Vikings early on in the first quarter, but closed it out on a 13-4 run for a 24-12 lead. Momentum stayed on their side while building a 50-25 halftime lead.
"After Harbor Springs (on Friday), we focused on not coming out flat," SF center Kody Kleinrichert said. "We knew Grayling is a good team and they were going to come out and press us. We knew this was a big one for us and we came out fired up."
St. Francis shot 20-for-36 in the first half.
"They shot the ball very well and we couldn't buy a basket," Grayling coach Rich Moffit said. "I mean, we couldn't throw it in the ocean if we were standing in the ocean. But, for us, there were a lot of positives, as hard as that is to believe. We didn't turn the ball over as much. And we kept our composure for most of the game. We'll take some steps forward. We're really young."
The St. Francis lead reached 35 points in the third quarter. Grayling chipped away in the fourth, but couldn't get it less than 20 points.
Rebounding was a big advantage for the Gladiators, who out-rebounded the Vikings 47-28.
"Coach Moffit and I talked about it before the game, that they struggle with tall teams," Haske said. "I thought our bigs played a great game tonight. They dominated the paint like they should."
"That was one of the biggest things for us," Kleinrichert said. "We watched film before the game of Harbor Springs. The reason that was so close was because nobody boxed out and hit the glass. So that was a big focus for us, to put a body on somebody, box out and hit the glass."
Kleinrichert finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds while fellow big man Connor Archer had 17 points and eight rebounds.
"He stepped up when he needed to," Kleinrichert said. "They put a lot of pressure on me and our outside shooters. The best thing about that is you can shut down one person, but you can't shut down all of us. Tonight, he stepped up. He stepped up at there place too. It's nice to see him have a game like that. He's fully capable of it and he's an awesome player."
Byron Bullough led all scorers with 20 points, including four 3-pointers. Daniel Wilson came off the bench for seven St. Francis points, Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi had six points, eight assists and five steals while center Noah Phillips had four assists.
For Grayling, Jake Swander led the way with 17 points, including nine in the fourth quarter. Justice Junttila had 11 points and six rebounds while Tyler McClanahan had six assists.
Grayling will look to get back on track on Friday with a home game against Boyne City. St. Francis will visit East Jordan.
In the JV game, St. Francis held on for a 71-70 win. The Glads led 68-67 with a minute to go when Gus Danz made a basket, was fouled and hit the free throw for a 71-67 advantage.
Danz finished with 15 points, Cheppe Campus had 12 points and Michael Olm added 11 points for the Glads (8-7).