|Thomas More and Sydney Moss rose above the competition all season long.
Photoy by Robert Youngs, Jr., d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Perfection seemed like the only option. After several years of promising regular seasons followed by disappointing tournament exits, Thomas More finally reached the Final Four.
Then they went and won the whole dang thing, in convincing fashion.
The Saints never trailed in defeating George Fox, 83-63, before a predominantly blue-and-white crowd at Calvin College. Sydney Moss recorded her first career triple double, leading the Saints with 19 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 assists. The victory came 366 days after she underwent knee surgery to repair the torn ACL she suffered in last year’s sectional final defeat.
"I think we had something to prove after last year," said Moss.
Moss, named national player of the year for the second straight season earlier Saturday, made a difference at both ends of the court. For the second night in a row, she played in the post on defense. That helped the Saints hold Bruins All-American Lauren Codling to four points in the first half. On offense, she frequently penetrated the lane and delivered assists to wide open teammates. Forward Alexa Santamaria scored 14 points, making all six of her field goals. Forward Nikki Kiernan added 16 points in 16 minutes off the bench. Fearless freshman Abby Owings added 17 points.
"It's a team. It's not revolved around one or two people," said coach Jeff Hans. "We didn’t say it, but we knew we had some unfinished business."
The Bruins never strayed from what got them here, trying to dictate the tempo with their tenacious full court defense. There is a reason why the Saints rarely faced full court pressure this season. Despite turning the ball over 24 times, the Saints found plenty of open looks. They scored 18 fast break points, and the Bruins had no answer for the Saints half court offense
"We answered every call," said Hans. "That’s what this team does."
Owings used her speed and court vision to lead the press break. She was unfazed by the pressure. Hans knew that the press would force turnovers, but hoped his team would keep its error tally below 30.
"Abby’s the key. What she can do with the press break makes a big difference," said Hans. "We regrouped and handled it a lot better."
While they never talked about the past shortcomings, they knew that Thomas More belonged among the nation's title-winning teams. The Saints seemed destined to make this history last season, until Moss's crushing injury derailed those hopes. In some ways, her injury was a blessing in disguise. Thomas More’s role players and newcomers, like Santamaria, Kiernan, and Sam Cady, developed into stronger players.
"From where we were last year a week ago to getting where we are tonight and everything we went through in the past year," said Hans. "I couldn’t be more proud of this group."
With just two seniors graduating, the Saints will be favored to return next year. Moss continues to make history, finishing the tournament with 197 points, an all-divisions record. Even while she continues to rehab from her knee injury, she willed her team to a championship with the best individual performance in tournament history.
Thomas More capped a 33-0 season by playing Saints basketball. After grinding out two low-scoring games against St. Thomas and Tufts to get here, the Saints were ready for the helter-skelter tempo forced by George Fox. After missing their first seven field goals against Tufts one night prior, the Saints opened up hot against the Bruins, sinking their first three shots. The lead extended to 12 at halftime on Moss’s floater as time expired. The Bruins cut the deficit to eight in the second half, but could not creep any closer.
The pair of senior guards, Sydni Wainscott and Stephanie Krusling, get to enjoy victory in their final game. They leave on a 33-game winning streak and will wear the first national championship rings any Thomas More athletic team has earned.
"It kind of feels surreal, like, who are we going to beat next?" said Wainscott. "How many players get to win their final game? This was our goal. We reached all of our goals. Especially as a senior, this feels amazing."
The Saints program has dominated the Presidents Athletic Conference for the past several years. They continued to thrive after a coaching transition four years ago. Hans has guided this team to the pinnacle, even if it took longer than expected to get there. The Saints proved in this postseason that they are a complete team that can win any style of game. They proved to the nation that their regular season dominance is no fluke. Thomas More is no longer hoping to be recognized as a national title contender; the Saints are champions.
"It took four long years," said Krusling, playfully nudging her coach, "but we did it!"