Thomas More’s National Title Defense Starts at Home

By Justin Zackal

2017 PAC Champion Thomas More Saints.

After Thomas More has a Eureka moment to start the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Championship Tournament, there could be Hope that the Saints will continue a run to defend their national title.

Those are two of the teams that will play at Thomas More’s Connor Convocation Center this weekend as the second-ranked Saints open with the tournament against Eureka (20-7) Friday night after Hope (22-4) plays Wisconsin-Whitewater (21-5). The two winners will meet Saturday in the second round to advance to the NCAA sectionals.

The Saints have been here before, undefeated and starting the national title quest at home. Last year, Thomas More won four games at home before winning it all. The Saints are 11-5 at home in the NCAA tournament since 2008, not including four wins from the 2015 national championship run that they later vacated.

Thomas More may benefit from being in a familiar spot, but there’s also the excitement of the unknown based on the dichotomy of the Saints’ lineup.

“There are some similarities, but they are different,” said Thomas More head coach Jeff Hans, citing the three returning starters, juniors Nikki Kiernan (14.7 ppg) and Abby Owings (16.0 ppg) and sophomore Madison Temple (15.7 ppg).

Thomas More senior Kristen Paul.

Of the seven remaining players who average 10 or more minutes per game, two are freshmen and the other five are averaging more or nearly double the minutes they did last year. The two new starters are sophomore Michaela Ware (4.0 ppg) and senior Kirsten Paul (6.9 ppg). Paul has quietly made a difference, according to Hans.

“She’s been healthy this year and she’s taken full advantage of her opportunities,” Hans said. “She’s been a silent leader for us and running the floor and getting some easy baskets, but also defensively in doing what she needs to do with the rebounding part of it.”

Thomas More’s specialty is how the Saints protect and distribute the ball. The Saints’ have led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio the last four years, including this year with a phenomenal 1.87 ratio that is a whopping 0.51 better than the next best team.

This statistic isn’t just a byproduct of success.

“It’s the culture of how we want to do things,” Hans said. “I think it is having players that buy into being unselfish knowing that if I set my teammate up for a better shot then the next time down they are going to set me up. That’s the style we want to play to make it fun for our guys.”

Ware leads the nation with a 4.55 assist-to-turnover ratio and Temple is fifth at 3.10.

Another statistic that Thomas More dominates is its 35.9+ average scoring margin. Amherst (32.3+) is the only other team with an average margin greater than 25.0+. Thomas More’s 13-point, 66-53 win over Saint Vincent in Saturday’s PAC tournament championship game was the Saint’s closest conference game all season and the tightest gap since a 77-70 win over Illinois Wesley on Dec. 29. Illinois Wesleyan (18-9) is the only NCAA tournament team TMC played this year.

Should the lack of close games and games against NCAA tournament-caliber teams concern Thomas More?

“No. I don’t think so,” Hans said. “Because of practice and our travel situation to go to Western PA and Bethany nine times, we’ve got to be mentally prepared and mentally tough on those days. I think we talk about that part of it, how that helps us.”

The driving distance for conference games — no opponent within 250 miles — is wider than the scoring margins.

In addition to Amherst, there are two other undefeated teams, Ohio Northern and St. Thomas. If the higher seeds advance, Thomas More and Ohio Northern would meet in the second sectional (national quarterfinal), which will be hosted by one of the participating institutions March 10-11. The national semifinals and finals will be held March 17-18 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.