Saints hit the road for revenge

More news about: Thomas More
Abby Owings has had a remarkable career, but her sights are set on one more finish at the top.
Thomas More athletics photo

By Adam Turer

Attending a women’s basketball game at the Connor Convocation Center is a joyous event.

The stands are always packed, the crowd gets loud, and the product on the court is a marvel to watch.

Thomas More logo March 4, 2017 was a notable exception. The Hope Flying Dutch stunned the home team in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, holding Thomas More to 67 points. It was the Saints’ first loss on their home floor since Nov. 23, 2012, when they fell to then-top-ranked Calvin in overtime.

For the players on this season’s roster, the loss to Hope was their first college defeat. This year’s seniors, Abby Owings and Nikki Kiernan, had played 94 straight games without a loss.

In their final season, and in their final game at the CCC this past weekend, the joy was back in full effect. After last year’s hiatus, the Saints are back in the sectional round after posting a pair of convincing home victories over Oglethorpe and Juniata.

“There’s nothing like playing in the Connor Convocation Center. This place gets so loud and there’s so many people that come and watch us and support us,” said Owings, the program’s all-time leading scorer. “It’s kind of bittersweet. There’s nothing like playing a game here.”

Determined to advance to the Sweet 16, the Saints raced out to a 10-0 lead over Juniata. They never let their foot off the gas. The intensity was relentless.

“I think that we’re always excited to get to the NCAA Tournament to play different competition,” said junior Madison Temple. “We got ousted a little early last year, so we wanted to come in and make a statement and I think we did that.” 

Reader poll

Which women's host is most likely to advance?

The familiar brand of Saints basketball, which led to back-to-back national titles in 2015 (later vacated) and 2016, was on display throughout the game. One sequence in particular captured the essence of the intense and unselfish brand of basketball that has spurred the Saints’ success under head coach Jeff Hans.

In the third quarter with the Saints leading 53-25, Taylor Jolly deflected a Juniata pass into Temple’s hands then raced up the left side of the court. Temple made a long cross-court outlet pass to Jolly who received it a couple of feet behind the 3-point arc with an open lane in front of her. Jolly took one hard dribble toward the basket to draw the defense, then rifled a pass to a wide-open Owings on the other side of the arc. Owings caught, gathered, and knocked down the triple moments before a Juniata defender soared past her. The crowd erupted and the players ran back on defense clapping and smiling. The team’s court awareness and chemistry were evident.

“This year, we’ve come together a lot and worked on our culture and our togetherness and it shows,” said Temple. “We’ve been having so much fun playing together.”

Madison Temple has solidified herself as the next Saints great.
Thomas More athletics photo

This season has not been without adversity. The Saints lost starting guard Michaela Ware to a devastating knee injury in the preseason. Jolly, a sophomore, has stepped up in her absence. The Saints squandered a 14-point fourth quarter lead in the second game of the season, losing at Rochester. But since then, the team has come together in a way that it did not in 2017.

“I think last year was kind of a rebuilding year. We lost a lot of good seniors [in 2016] who meant a lot to our program and did so much for us, all of the little things even if they weren’t big scorers,” said Temple. “Last year was different, everyone was starting to play different roles and we had a lot of people who didn’t have a lot of experience coming off the bench and playing bigger roles. I think we just weren’t used to the atmosphere yet when we got to the NCAA Tournament.”

Temple’s role has continued to expand. During the 2015-16 championship season, she earned PAC Freshman of the Year honors. This year, after leading the Saints in scoring, rebounding, assists, and assist-to-turnover ratio, she took home the conference’s Player of the Year award.

The Big Three — Owings, Temple, and Kiernan — played up to expectations this season. But it was the elevated play of new starters Jolly and freshman Taylor White and bench players like Emily Schultz and Shelby Rupp that helped the Saints improve on last year’s season. Ten Saints average more than 11 minutes per game and all 10 of them usually see action early in the game. The Saints like to come at opponents in waves.

“Our second string comes in and they just keep where we left off,” said Owings. “That’s huge for us because last year we didn’t have everybody understanding their roles. That’s what we expect out of them. For this year, that’s the biggest difference.”

“They give us a spark off the bench,” added Kiernan, who averages 11.8 points and 5.3 rebounds despite playing just 19.3 minutes per game. “It gives us fresh legs out there and we don’t miss a beat.”

Other than her older teammates’ senior nights, Owings has started in every game since arriving on campus. The Jostens Trophy finalist and four-time first team All-PAC selection is excited to be one step closer to the goal that has driven her since that disappointing night last March. Getting back to the Sweet 16 is nice, but that was not the mission that this team is on.

“There’s maybe a little bit of relief, but we’re not done yet,” said Owings. “There’s still that feeling inside of us that we want to get to the national championship game.”

Every year, the Saints have a motto. This year’s was a no-brainer. Before last season, all these players knew was national championships.

“’The Get Back’ is to get back to where we started, the national championship,” said Kiernan. “We want to win it again.”

The tournament committee could not have given the Saints a better opportunity for revenge.

After taking care of business in the first two rounds, the Saints earned a trip to Hope. If the Saints defeat Gustavus Adolphus and the hosts defeat Christopher Newport on Friday, Saturday night will be a dream opportunity for Thomas More. The Saints will have a chance to earn another Final Four berth by defeating the team that sucked the joy out of the CCC for one night that has not been forgotten. While the Saints would prefer another weekend of games in Crestview Hills, Kentucky, knocking off the Flying Dutch on their home floor to clinch a trip to Rochester, Minnesota, would be satisfying.

“We’re excited for the challenge. It would be nice to get a win in somebody else’s gym and avenge our loss from last year,” said Temple. “We’d love to cut down somebody else’s nets.”