|Shelby Rupp ended her senior season the way she ended her freshman season: with a national championship.
Photo by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
SALEM-- Thomas More’s star knew that she couldn’t wait until the fourth quarter to take over on this night. She also didn’t have to.
Madison Temple did a little bit of everything, and fellow senior Shelby Rupp did a whole lot of everything, as the Saints capped a perfect season by defeating Bowdoin in the national championship game, 81-67.
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Rupp did not play in the title game as a freshman, the last time Thomas More won it all. Now in a premier role on the season’s biggest stage, she delivered. The forward led the Saints with 12 rebounds and scored 17 points.
“I just knew as a senior that this is my last game and I wanted to win,” said Rupp. “I knew I was going to go out there and give it my all and leave it all out there and do everything I could to help my team win a national championship. I did what I could do to help my team.”
Temple finished with 17 points and seven rebounds, and was one of five Saints to score in double figures. Rupp and Temple each had a team-high four assists, and Temple led with four steals. The senior from Anderson High School nearly gave up her dream of playing college basketball after suffering two serious knee injuries in high school. She persevered, and earned every national player of the year award as a senior.
“I have had such an amazing college experience at Thomas More. I’m just so happy that I made the decision to play. I’ve made so many great friends here,” said Temple. “To say I’m a two-time national champion is pretty awesome.”
The seniors made their third Final Four appearance, and came away with their second national championship. The program ends its time in Division III with a perfect season.
“They’re both sweet. All of the time, the work, the dedication that our student-athletes put into getting here, it’s something that they’ll live together,” said Saints coach Jeff Hans. “They’ll be able to come back to Thomas More in five years, ten years, and see that banner up and hopefully it will bring a tear to their eye that that was them. It’s special. It’s so hard with all of these teams out there. We’re blessed to be the last ones standing.”
All of the attention focused on stopping the Saints’ stars opened the floor for Thomas More’s role players. Kaela Saner finished with a career-high 20 points to lead the Saints. Emily Schultz added 14 and Briana McNutt contributed 11. The Saints made 24 of their 27 free throw attempts.
“You can just tell that we love playing together and we love playing for one another and we want to make plays for one another,” said Temple. “I think that this game was really just about winning for each other. I thanked all of my teammates for making this season so memorable for me.”
Bowdoin started fast and played with intensity until the end, but appeared worn down by the fourth quarter. Abby Kelly led the Polar Bears with 27 points, nine rebounds, and six assists. Hannah Graham scored 14, but just four in the second half. Maddie Hasson added 12 points. The Polar Bears made just seven of their 27 three point attempts.
The Saints, who had struggled in the second and third quarters through much of this tournament, used big runs during those two periods to create separation from the Polar Bears.
“I just think we focused a lot on our defensive end,” said Temple. “We made a better effort to get back in transition and we switched up our defense in the second half to slow them down and throw them off a little bit.”
Thomas More won the opening tip and Temple attacked immediately, driving down the right side and sinking a short jumper over the outstretched arms of two defenders. On Bowdoin’s first possession, Temple soared in for a defensive rebound. She took the ball up court, then rifled a two-handed pass all the way across the court to Saner, who knocked down a corner three.
“I didn’t have any nerves or anything. We worked so hard for this, there was nothing to be nervous about,” said Saner. “We played so many tough games on the road. We just had to go out there and do the same thing.”
Bowdoin’s speed put pressure on the Saints early. Taylor Choate’s quickness allowed her to keep up with Temple. Kelly and Samantha Roy pushed the tempo and created before the Saints could set their defense. Graham was perfect from the field and the free throw line in the first quarter, leading the way with seven points.
“We knew that we wanted to push the ball and try to make them play at our fast pace and put a lot of pressure on Madison. She’s an amazing player,” said Choate. “We just weren’t able to string a lot of defensive and offensive plays together.”
Bowdoin led 19-16 after one quarter and led by as many as six in the second quarter. That’s when the Saints extended their defense and created five turnovers off of the pressure. Those turnovers keyed a 8-0 run that gave Thomas More the lead back and led Bowdoin coach Adrienne Shibles to call timeout with 6:35 to play in the half. The Saints continued their surge, and after a 12-0 run led 30-24.
“I think when they threw on that press, we lost our poise a little bit, and they were able to gain a lead that we were never able to get back,” said Bowdoin coach Adrienne Shibles. “I think that press rattled us a little bit.”
Thomas More took a 38-34 lead into halftime and came out on fire in the third quarter. The Saints led by as many as 13, but Bowdoin kept attacking. The Polar Bears sliced the deficit to five and seized momentum. A Saints turnover led to a timeout, and the strong Bowdoin fan base was going wild. But Kelly Clapper stole the ball on the ensuing possession, thwarting the rally.
Temple and Saner each scored nine points in the fourth quarter as the Saints never relinquished control in the final frame.
The Polar Bears finished as national runner-up for the second straight year. The seniors will graduate, and the program will once again reload.
“I think getting to the national championship twice in a row, it shows the underclassmen that you can keep pushing and keep getting better year after year. Don’t stop working hard and you can get to this level again,” said Choate. “Playing for this program has been the best four years of my life. It’s been an honor playing for this team. I feel really blessed.”
The Saints seniors shared a similar camaraderie. Their unselfishness was on display all season, and shined through on the biggest stage.
“We wanted to win so badly for each other,” said Rupp.
The Saints finished their final season in Division III with a perfect 33-0 record. This is the end of an era, as Thomas More moves to NAIA next season. Temple, Rupp, and the Saints program did what they set out to do, winning it all.
“I think we just wanted to make a statement in our last year in the NCAA,” said Temple. “We just wanted to go out on top, especially after being cut short last year. Besides just wanting to win for each other, it was a big thing for us, the last year here, to be the final team and win it all.”
“We wanted to make people believe in us,” said Rupp, “and hopefully we finally did.”