Basketball is a bottom-line business these days for St. Ambrose.
"The playoffs, they started today for us," Fighting Bees guard Lee Hardrick said. "We needed this game. Now, we need to go get the next one. Every game from here on out is a playoff game for us."
Working to play its way into the field for the upcoming eight-team Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament, St. Ambrose passed its first test by handling Cardinal Stritch 68-57 on Saturday at Lee Lohman Arena.
The win leaves the Fighting Bees in ninth place in the league race, but one of six teams within two games of fifth place heading into the final week of the regular season.
St. Ambrose (14-14, 8-10 CCAC) finishes its conference schedule away from home against Trinity Christian and St. Francis (Ill.) teams currently sitting 14th and 11th in the league standings.
But Saturday, the only thing that mattered was getting past the Wolves, who had stung the Bees 75-72 on the road earlier this season.
"Everybody came out focused, determined," senior Blake Buls said. "We came out with the right mindset, ready to get after it."
Coach Ray Shovlain started five of his program’s seven seniors in their final home game, and two — Greg Wagner and John Payan — joined freshmen John Kerr and Dylan Kaczmarek in knocking down 3-point baskets during the game’s opening minutes.
Kerr led the Fighting Bees with 18 points, and his seven rebounds were matched by Buls, the only other St. Ambrose player to finish in double figures with a 10-point performance.
Of the 13 Fighting Bees who took the court, 12 scored and nine grabbed rebounds.
"It was a team effort from the start. The freshmen and sophomores, they really wanted to send the seniors off the right way, and we want to help get them to the tourney," Hardrick said. "We’re in it together."
St. Ambrose led 35-32 at the half, but used 3-point baskets by Kerr and Hardrick during the opening minutes of the second half to extend a lead that reached 45-34 on a basket by Jalen Jones with 16 minutes, 37 seconds remaining in the game.
A three-point play by Kerr, who knocked down 7-of-11 shots, pushed the Fighting Bees ahead 48-36 with 15:05 to go, and Cardinal Stritch (15-13, 10-8) was unable to erase a double-digit deficit the remainder of the game.
"This was a solid win for us. The guys did an excellent job of working the ball around, looking for the good shot," Shovlain said. "We didn’t shoot too quickly, we played solid defense, and it was just a good solid all-around game, what you hope to see this time of year when you need to be at your best."
Nemanja Knezevic led the Wolves with 15 points while Damon Stoneking recorded a double-double, finishing with 10 points and an equal number of rebounds.