Keith Braxton  Ikenna Ndugba

St.Francis University’s Keith Braxton, left, looks for a way around Bryant University’s Ikenna Ndugba during a NCAA Northeast Conference quarterfinal playoff game in Loretto, PA., Wednesday, Mar.4, 2020.

MOON TOWNSHIP – Let’s face it. If you are a 12-year-old boy who loves basketball, your dream is to one day play for Duke, Kentucky, Kansas or Michigan State, not St. Francis.

That’s not a knock on St. Francis. It’s just that, unless you grew up in central Pennsylvania, you might not even know it exists. 

The same is true for almost every small Division I college and the majority of mid-major programs. 

The Blue Devils and Wildcats, meanwhile, are on TV a couple of times per week, and attachments form.

It probably was true for Keith Braxton. The Glassboro, New Jersey, native really didn’t have a lot of familiarity with St. Francis, but he also didn’t have a lot of other options if he wanted to play basketball at the highest level when Rob Krimmel came calling.

Suffice to say, the Red Flash now are Braxton’s favorite team. And he says they’ll remain so.

“I’ll be following it very closely. I mean, Loretto is my second home. I made brothers there who I’ll probably be in touch for life,” Braxton said. “Just to be part of that culture, I just want to stay with it.”

Although one has to imagine how deeply they were hurting inside, Braxton and Krimmel tried to focus on positives after their hopes to reach the NCAA Tournament were dashed by Tuesday’s 77-67 loss to Robert Morris at the UPMC Events Center, the third time in four years the Red Flash were defeated in the Northeast Conference championship game.

Though the team almost certainly would have been extended an opportunity to play in the CBI or CIT next week, the college would have have needed to weigh the pros and cons and it’s not a given it would accept. In truth, those games would serve as an anti-climactic epilogue to a very significant chapter in St. Francis men’s basketball history.

“Right now, we’re going to focus in on these guys,” Krimmel said after Tuesday’s game. “Make sure that we give them a proper sendoff, because each one of these kids, I love them to death, and the pain and the anguish that you feel when you see that, if it is the last time.

“If we’re fortunate enough to play another game, great, but, for what these guys have done to represent St. Francis University, I told them there’s one word, we put it all over our shirts: ‘Believe.’ ”

There definitely has been disappointment – the Red Flash seemed loose and ready to go on Tuesday night but quickly had Robert Morris’ style of play imposed on them. Last season, St. Francis was the top seed, playing Fairleigh Dickinson at DeGol Arena in the finals, but shot 4 of 17 at the foul line in a nine-point loss.

Of course, to lose in the finals three times, you have to get there three times.

“When you believe in something, when you believe you can win, you set yourself up for disappointment. When you believe and have a passion and when you care so much, you are going to have disappointment along the way, but these guys continued to battle,” Krimmel said.

Over the last four years, the Red Flash have won 75 games and they haven’t enjoyed a stretch like the last three years since the early 1950s, when Maurice Stokes was a freshman. This year’s squad was only the second since 1967 to win 20 games. Last year, they went to the NIT.

They produced consecutive NEC players of the year in Braxton and Blackmon, who finished third and seventh in all-time scoring at the school. Braxton had one of the best careers in NEC history and will leave St. Francis third all-time in rebounds and assists, as well.

“Some of what they’ve done has never been accomplished before,” Krimmel said. “They need to be proud of what they’ve accomplished.”

The biggest thing might be the least measurable: They increased St. Francis’ profile and improved its visibility by getting on ESPN four times by getting to those conference finals along with an NIT appearance at Indiana. Braxton is on the radar of NBA teams now, and Blackmon is considered a prospect for the G League, the NBA’s developmental system.

Next year will be pivotal, as the Red Flash graduate their two stars along with defensive specialist Randall Gaskins, rotation center Deivydas Kuzavas and off-injured shooting specialist Scott Meredith.

Two starters return: forwards Myles Thompson and Mark Flagg. Ramiir Dixon-Conover, Tyler Stewart and Bryce Laskey appear to have the inside track to start at the guards; all were significant contributors this season.

Krimmel redshirts guards Luke Ruggery and Justen Anderson and 6-10 Josh Cohen. They could step into the rotation next season. Anderson is the son of Flash all-time leading scorer Joe Anderson. St. Francis also signed guards Zahree Harrison of Cheltenham and Maxwell Land of Cincinnati and got a verbal commitment from Virginia guard Ronell Giles – a couple of them probably will see the floor early.

The most vital returnee, though, is Krimmel. The State College native has offered a stability that few non-power-conference college programs enjoy. He’s also considered one of the most likeable figures in the NEC.

“I don’t know who is not rooting for Rob Krimmel to go to the NCAA Tournament,” Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina said after the Flash defeated his team in the conference semis.

Someday, this disappointment might be looked upon as a step to that. For now, St. Francis just keeps building its reputation and adding to its fanbase.

“I want to keep supporting those guys, checking up on Coach, checking up on the players, try go get a couple of more visits down there, because I grew up a lot these last four years,” Braxton said. 

“I’m very thankful for Loretto and St. Francis, and I’m going to keep supporting, doing as much as I can, being a part of that community.”

It’s a mutual feeling. That program grew up a lot over the last four years because of Braxton and his teammates, too.

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