|Abby Owings is playing with more confidence in her sophomore season, which is more bad news for Thomas More's opponents.
Thomas More athletics photo
By Adam Turer
You already know what’s the same about the defending champs, so let’s look at what’s different about Thomas More this season.
It all starts with a change in hashtag philosophy.
The 2013-14 season ended in disappointment and frustration, even though the Saints broke new ground by winning 31 straight games and advancing to the program’s first ever sectional final. That led to the 2014-15 motto “On a [Freaking] Mission.” That mission was to avenge the sectional final loss and make it to the program’s first Final Four. Mission accomplished, and then some.
This year’s motto has a much different tone. The Saints opened the season ranked number one and have been determined to “Have Fun Going Wire to Wire.” So far, so good.
“Last year, we wanted to get beyond the Elite Eight,” said sophomore point guard Abby Owings. “I think this year’s more about having fun and playing relaxed.”
Although you wouldn’t have noticed from their play, last year’s star freshmen Owings and Nikki Kiernan were intimidated by the bright lights of their first NCAA tournament run. They are both much more confident and comfortable this season, and it shows in their play and on-court demeanor.
“This year, once the ball is tipped, I’m a lot more calm,” said Owings. “I think we’re all a lot more comfortable having experienced the big stage before. We learned that we can’t be nervous now that we’re in the spotlight.”
Getting to know Thomas More
When the Saints needed someone to step up after Sydney Moss went to the bench with four fouls late in the third quarter of the sectional final against a fearless Washington U. squad, Owings rose to the challenge. She opened the fourth quarter by launching and connecting on four 3-pointers, each deeper than the last.
“I didn’t have that confidence last year,” said Owings, who is averaging 16.5 points per game in the tournament.
The Saints graduated just two seniors, including one starter, from last year’s title team. Freshman Madison Temple has filled the starting spot vacated by Sydni Wainscott. Unlike what her sophomore teammates experienced last year, Temple has not been subject to freshman jitters. She has averaged 11.5 points per game and is shooting 55.3 percent from the field, including 41.5 percent from 3-point range.
“I’ve always had composure in games, so I’m trying not to freak out too much,” said Temple.
Kiernan has been a more dominant force, starting 29 games after coming off the bench last season. She has posted six double-doubles this season and is averaging 14.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in the tournament. She leads the team with 2.8 blocks per game, and has relished being a focal point on both ends of the court.
“I was so nervous during this time [last year],” said Kiernan, “but now I feel like I’m a lot more settled in and comfortable, so I feel like we’ll be able to execute better.”
Elevating Kiernan to the starting lineup allowed senior Sam Cady to play a different role as a spark off the bench. Along with fellow senior Olivia Huber, Cady relishes her role as an energizer. She wears pads on both knees and makes good use of them, consistently diving on the floor for loose balls.
|Samantha Caddy is playing a different role for Thomas More this season, which just makes the Saints even deeper than before.
File photo by Robert Youngs, Jr., d3photography.com
“I think it gives me more energy to fight for everything. I like diving on the ground,” said Cady. “I’d rather me get a save and watch someone else score a layup. It gives me that much more fire to come off the bench.”
With the emergence of the younger scorers around her, Moss has become more of a distributor this season. Her points per game are down from 24.2 to 21.8, but her assists per game are up from 4.0 to 5.8. Opposing coaches often point to Moss’s court vision and passing as the most dangerous part of the Saints’ offense.
“The thing about them is Moss just makes you scheme against things that sometimes she does physically that, let’s be honest, are at a different level,” said Wash. U. coach Nancy Fahey. “That scheming trickles down to different areas. You can be loose like that when you have that kind of situation.”
When your star player is content to facilitate and make smart and unselfish decisions, it becomes contagious. Three of the top four leaders in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio play for Thomas More.
Across the board, the Saints are improved. The scoring average, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, 3-point percentage, and rebounding numbers are up. The most significant increase is in assists per game (23, up from 18.5). The Saints assist on 66 percent of their field goals, up from 59 percent last season. Last season’s Saints had three scorers average double figures; this year, there are four.
Opponents are still struggling to find an exploitable weakness on this team. In the sectional semifinal, Maryville held Moss to 10 points. The Scots lost by 29. In the sectional final, Wash. U. led after one quarter and Moss went to the bench with four fouls late in the third quarter. Owings scored 16 in the fourth quarter and the Saints won by 16. Despite reaching the pinnacle last year, not an ounce of complacency crept into the program.
In many ways, the Saints felt more pressure last year than they do to repeat this season. Reaching this stage last season was a joy, but also a relief. They know that this is the final run with the team’s five seniors. Now, they are enjoying each moment and having fun.
The Saints are still on a mission, but there’s a different F-word in the motto this time around.