Saints found their roles, then started rolling

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Nikki Kiernan is one of two Saints seniors whose roles have shifted as the wins have mounted. 
Thomas More Athletics photo

By Adam Turer

The Saints are on a 29-game roll, all because they finally figured out their roles.

Thomas More Even during last year’s 28-1 season, Thomas More was working to redefine roles on the court. After opening this season 1-1, the Saints found themselves in unfamiliar territory. Dating back to last year’s second round NCAA tournament loss to Hope, they had dropped two of their past three games.

The senior class that fueled the 2016 national championship had moved on. Although an experienced core returned, the newcomers were still trying to figure out how to fit in while dealing with the pressure of keeping the Saints’ streak alive. There was really nowhere to go but down.

“Last year, coming into a back-to-back national championship team, I felt so disappointed not carrying on what they had done,” said sophomore guard Taylor Jolly.

The Saints are once again led by Abby Owings, but even the senior Jostens Trophy finalist had to fit into a different role this year. The preseason injury to Michaela Ware forced Owings to return to point guard duties. Despite being the team’s primary ballhandler, she still sits third in the nation in three-point field goal percentage, knocking down 52.2 percent of her shots from behind the arc.

Ware’s injury thrust Jolly into the starting lineup, where she is still working to develop confidence in her role. She went 0-9 from the field in the first two games of the season. On Friday night against Gustavus Adolphus, she was again held scoreless. She received words of encouragement from Owings and junior Madison Temple, and came out and did what she does best on Saturday — score points.

“When Michaela went out and I had a chance to take that role, we thought our team would be so different because we’re such different players. We had to adapt to that change, but we did during the season,” said Jolly. “Abby and Madison came up to me after [Friday’s] game and told me they need me to look for my shot more. Friday night, I was not really playing my game. I think I was just a little nervous. Saturday night, I composed myself. I love how everyone is there for me if I’m not making my shots. There’s so much depth so if one person isn’t hitting, another one is.”

More often than not, that person is Temple, the PAC Player of the Year and a contender to become the second Saint in the past three seasons to earn National Player of the Year honors. The junior leads the team in scoring, but is also an excellent decision-maker. She ranks second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and is capable of putting up a triple-double every time she steps on the floor. When Owings is struggling with her shot, she knows to get the ball into Temple’s hands and vice versa.

“Abby and Madison have put themselves in position along with their teammates to do this. It’s always been about the team. That’s what it was [against Hope],” said head coach Jeff Hans. “Abby struggled to make shots in the first half, Madison was slow to get going, too. We were able to stay right there in the game because that’s what a team does, that’s the chemistry that this team has been able to develop this season.”

The Saints have one of the more unique starting lineups and rotations in the country. Freshman Hayden White starts at center, but rarely shoots, let alone scores. Senior Nikki Kiernan is a three-year starter, but splits time in the post with junior Shelby Rupp and sophomore Emily Schultz. Combined, those three forwards average 27.6 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. Owings and Temple are the only Saints players who put up more than 10 shots per game.

“Our starting five is one of those things early on in the year that just worked. Hayden picked up the system really quickly. She rebounded and just kept rebounding. She knows that she doesn’t have to score,” said Hans. “Shelby comes in and there’s no let-down. Now opponents have to worry about us having more offensive threats out there. Then we bring in [freshmen guards] Tori [Gilman] and Briana [McNutt] to be defenders on the perimeter. That was a big piece [against Hope], limiting their offensive rebounds.”

The constants during this four-year stretch in which the Saints have reached the first three Final Fours in program history are Hans, Owings, and Kiernan. The other constant has been the family atmosphere and chemistry, not just among the current teammates, but of former Saints players. That connection has been vital to the newcomers and to the upperclassmen who form the bridge between this year’s team and the last championship squad.

“You feel an emotional tie to these girls regardless of if you played with them or not. You want to see each and every one succeed and excel because you’ve been there and that’s the goal,” said Alexa Santamaria, a 2016 graduate. “As a freshman you start embracing that idea of living out the legacy that was left by others and by the time your career is over, you’ve paved your own.”

For Santamaria, that legacy is as simple as developing a relationship with Schultz, who now wears her old #31. The post players exchanged text messages of encouragement throughout the season.

“I remember when we won the Final Four game in Grand Rapids and when we finished shaking hands with the opposing team we all ran over to hug our girls in the stand,” said Santamaria. “That’s how we celebrated. With the girls who came before us and got us to where we were at that moment. It’s a bond like no other.”

Several former Saints made the trip back to Crestview Hills for the opening weekend, then up to Michigan for the sectional tournament. They will be back in full force in Minnesota.

“It meant so much to have them sitting behind our bench cheering us on the whole game,” said Jolly. “We felt like we could still win this for them. It’s so nice that we have that close relationship with them because they have a lot to do with where we’re at now.”

Owings hopes that her younger teammates finish their first or second season the way she finished hers, by cutting down the nets amidst a sea of confetti.

“It means the world to Nikki and I to go back to the Final Four. This has been something that we’ll never forget. The guys behind us, they set us up for this moment to be here. We’re playing our butts off to keep it going for these juniors, sophomores, and freshmen,” said Owings. “From being excited for my very first time and now celebrating it with the girls who are experiencing it for the first time, seeing their faces light up, it’s truly unbelievable.”

Few players mean as much to their program as Owings means to Thomas More. No matter what happens this weekend, she will continue to serve as an inspiration to all of those who played with her, coached her, and will be following in her footsteps as a Saint. The future coach has one last chance to go out the same way she began her career at Thomas More.

“When it comes to my excitement for Abby and Nikki being back in a Final Four, I can’t even explain how happy I am for them. I actually get emotional almost every time I think about it,” said Santamaria. “Abby plays every game to live out her mom’s legacy to ‘be great’ and it’s so amazing to watch her do just that. I’ve watched them both live and breathe Thomas More basketball for four years and then to see where their journey ended last year was heartbreaking.

“They have so much passion for the game and you can see that with how much work they’ve put into helping this team grow and succeed. Those two deserve the world and I hope they can go out on top just like they made sure that our seniors did.”