Illinois Wesleyan's D gives Titans a trip to title game
HOLLAND, Mich. – Despite being at a size disadvantage at nearly every position, Illinois Wesleyan used a ferocious defensive effort Friday night to reach its first-ever NCAA Division III national championship game in women's basketball.
The Titans, who have one starter taller than 5-foot-8, limited St. Thomas, Minn. to 29 percent shooting from the field and forced 24 turnovers to defeat the Tommies, 67-53, in a Division III national semifinal at DeVos Fieldhouse.
Illinois Wesleyan (27-5), who returned to the Final Four this year after finishing fourth in last year's national championships on its home court, will face unbeaten George Fox (Ore.), a 76-69 winner over defending national champion Amherst (Mass.), at 7 p.m. Saturday night in Holland. The Titans, who started the year 3-4, have won 24 of their last 25 games.
"It's not a cliché. It's defense that does it," Illinois Wesleyan coach Mia Smith said. "We held a team that scores 70 points a game to 53. We changed some things up defensively this week, and I'm telling you, the girls bought into it and it worked."
The Titans were relentless from the outset, holding the Tommies to just one field goal in the first eight minutes. Meanwhile, senior Olivia Lett drilled a pair of 3-pointers to spark IWU to a 12-2 lead.
St. Thomas (30-2), which had won 30 straight games after a 17-point season-opening loss to Wisconsin-Stevens Point, soon got it going, however. With Maggie Weiers scoring eight points and Taylor Young six, the Tommies chipped away at the lead, cutting it to 26-25 at the half.
Weiers then gave the Tommies their only lead of the night at 27-26 on a short jumper 22 seconds into the second half. But Lett responded with a jumper 37 seconds later, igniting a 10-0 Titan run that propelled Illinois Wesleyan into a 36-27 lead.
"We knew Lett was going to get her points. We understood that. She's a great player," St. Thomas coach Ruth Sinn said. "She can score from the outside, she can take you off the dribble, she can post you up."
St. Thomas closed to within five on a Weiers 3-pointer at 41-36 with 11 minutes remaining, but the Titans' Michelle Bilek responded with a triple to spark a seven-point IWU run, increasing the lead to 48-36 with 9:40 to play. The Tommies never seriously threatened after that.
Lett led Illinois Wesleyan with 24 points and 12 rebounds, while Shelby Jackson came in off the bench to provide 11 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots.
Weiers led St. Thomas with 15 points and 10 rebounds, while Young added 13 points.
Illinois Wesleyan shot 38 percent from the field (26 of 69), while limiting the Tommies to 29 percent (17 of 58). The Titans made six 3-pointers to just two for St. Thomas.
St. Thomas will play Amherst in the 4 p.m. third-place game at DeVos.