Thomas More finally one of the Four

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The Thomas More bench has given the starters, most of whom are shown above, plenty of rest and plenty of reasons to celebrate.
Thomas More athletics photo 

By Adam Turer

After several years of knocking on the door, Thomas More has finally broken through.

While 12 previous Saints teams, including the past eight in a row, have played in the NCAA Tournament, the 2014-15 team is unique. Thomas More has never been to the Final Four, and this Thomas More team is one of a kind.

Last year’s team also made history, reaching the first sectional final in program history, falling one Sydney Moss injury short of the national semifinals. Then, coach Jeff Hans lost seven of the 17 players on the roster, including three starters. The Saints reloaded with two transfers and three freshmen. One of those transfers and one freshman instantly entered the starting lineup.

“We have a new group. It’s a different group all around and just to see them come together and be able to play the way we played, I’m just proud of them,” said Hans.

Moss, the reigning Player of the Year, returned this season and again led the nation in scoring, but she is still shy of full strength. Her injury in the first half of last year’s sectional final left that team’s story unfinished. This year’s team is determined to write the final chapter, wrapping up 2014’s cliffhanger with a storybook finish to 2015.

“We’ve made history,” said Sydni Wainscott, the other returning starter. “We did what we didn’t do last year, but we’re not done yet.”

Like Moss one year earlier, Sam Cady (Lake Forest) and Kaylee Bush (Slippery Rock) transferred to Thomas More this year. Both forwards, they have given the Saints a stronger post presence that has allowed Moss to play on the perimeter this season.

The transfers are enjoying this postseason run, but knew they made the right decision from the moment they arrived on campus.

“It’s been a great experience. It made me want to like basketball again,” said Cady. “It feels great to be on this team and have people push me every day on and off the court.”

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Joining Cady and Bush up front are junior forward Alexa Santamaria, who entered the starting lineup after contributing off the bench last year, sophomore Kirsten Paul, and freshman forward Nikki Kiernan. 

“That is the difference between this year and last year,” said Hans. “We’re a little bit deeper, and it’s really our post depth.”

Kiernan has been a force off of the bench, delivering eight points and eight rebounds against St. Thomas’ imposing defense in the sectional final win. When momentum was starting to shift in the second half against the Tommies, Cady stepped up and drew a charge. Then, Kiernan came up with a big block to start a fast break. Without these newcomers down low, it is hard to predict how far Thomas More would have made it this season. Their teammates have helped smooth their transitions.

“I get nervous for big games. I have a good support system, and they always bring me up when I’m down. I can always look to them to make a big play and keep me going,” said Kiernan. “We all feed off of each other. When someone does something good, we’re all there for each other and it picks everyone up.”

The constants from last year to this year have been Wainscott at one of the starting guard spots and the energy off the bench provided by backup guards Stephanie Krusling and Olivia Huber. There is also, of course, the most dynamic offensive player in Division III. Moss is six points away from setting the record for most points in a single tournament. She has scored 155 points through four games. She scored the first 18 points of the Saints’ Sweet 16 win over Washington U., then scored 22 of her 35 in the second half against St. Thomas.

“We feed off of what she does, whether it’s her scoring like she did in the first five minutes against Wash U, or whether it’s her driving and drawing two [defenders] and passing to get some assists,” said Hans.

Moss’ scoring average, field goal percentage, and free throw percentage have all decreased this season. The knee is still affecting her, and she is still adapting to her new role in the offense.

While she can still be a force in the post if a mismatch is presented, Moss is most dangerous in transition. Her 3-point percentage is up slightly, as are her assists per game. When she goes cold from the field, it actually boosts her intensity, which raises the energy of the entire team. Those cold streaks never last for the duration of a game, especially if she is able to pull up from beyond the arc in transition.

Sydney Moss hasn't quite completely recovered from the knee injury she suffered in the first half of last year's Elite Eight game, but it's not easy to tell.
Thomas More athletics photo 

“In some sense, I think whenever we’re frustrated, we actually play better,” said Moss. “It makes us be more aggressive, hustling after rebounds and loose balls more.”

The improved defense is another difference between this year’s Saints and last year’s team. Freshman Abby Owings, the Great Lakes Region Rookie of the Year, averages over two steals per game, as does Huber off the bench. They make life unpleasant for opposing point guards.

“On defense, when we get deflections and steals, it makes us work harder on offense,” said Owings.

In the sectional final, the Saints proved that St. Thomas was not the only defensive-minded team on the court, a feat they will need to repeat against Tufts, the only team ranked ahead of the Tommies in scoring defense this season. After allowing 90 points in their win over Washington U., the Saints buckled down on Saturday and held St. Thomas to its third-lowest scoring output of the season.

“They really did a nice job of disrupting the timing of our offense, which is usually something that we do (to other teams),” said Tommies coach Ruth Sinn.

In the first half against St. Thomas, the newcomers played like newcomers. Even Moss struggled from the field. It will take a full 40-minute effort for the Saints to make more program history against Tufts.

“When we get up to Grand Rapids and get on that stage, we have to have that poise, because Tufts has been there,” said Hans. “We’ve got to continue doing what we’re doing and we need to play like we did [against Wash U] for 40 minutes to have a good chance to beat a good Tufts team. That’s going to be a challenge, but it’s one we’re excited about.”

After defending their home court and cutting down their own nets in front of a sold-out crowd, the Saints are not content. They have already made history and achieved one goal that every Saints team before them strived for, but ultimately fell short of reaching. The 15 women on this team want to win for themselves, for each other, and for all of the Saints who helped paved the way for them.

“They’re hungry because we accomplished that goal of getting to the Final Four and now the next step in our process is to try to win the national championship if we can. We’re one of four teams left playing out of [435], so that’s exciting,” said Hans. “We’re going to be hungry. Our two seniors that have been through so much and even our juniors who have been so close, they’re ready to try to take on this new challenge.”