By DOUG HENNES
Just two strands of the net hung from the rim as St. Thomas coach Ruth Sinn, buoyed by the roars of the home crowd, stepped up the ladder. She snipped those strands with a scissors, turned to the fans, held up the net and thrust four fingers into the air.
No words were needed: Final Four!
Five years after taking St. Thomas to a Final Four and finishing third, Sinn will return to Michigan in the quest for the Tommies' second national championship after a resounding 65-48 win over Whitman Saturday night in Schoenecker Arena. They will play Tufts either at 4 or 6:30 p.m. CDT Friday at Van Noord Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The victory boosted No. 2 St. Thomas to 31-0, matching the 2012 Final Four team for the most victories in school history and propelling the Tommies to their sixth Final Four. After winning the championship in 1991, they finished third in 1995, 1996, 2000 and 2012.
"We are very excited by this opportunity," Sinn said. She talked about how she wore a Final Four 2012 shirt during the team's shoot-around practice earlier Saturday, and it didn't take long for the players to notice. "Kaitlin (Langer) said, 'Throwback!' " Sinn recalled with a grin.
Not that the Tommies needed any special motivation. Sinn thought they were as focused as any time this season. They came close to the Final Four the last two years, losing in the Elite Eight on the road in 2015 and in the Sweet Sixteen last year at home, and they wanted to do everything possible to extend their season one more week.
"I'm beyond excited," said junior guard Maddie Wolkow, who came off the bench to score nine points on three second-half 3-pointers. "This has been a goal of mine since I was a little girl – to play in a Final Four!"
Sinn credited her team's tough defense for the win. No. 16 Whitman (26-5) came into the game averaging 73 points and .428 shooting, but was held under 55 points for the first time this season. The Blues shot only 27 percent from the field and were 0 for 15 from 3-point range.
"Defense is not something everybody gets excited about," Sinn said.
But the Tommies do. It was the 11th time they have held a team under 50 points this season, and during the NCAA and MIAC playoffs their opponents have averaged only 54.8 points a game. "We always have been a defensive team," Sinn said. "We try to limit our opponents and keep them in the 50s."
Whitman's Emily Rommel, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds on Friday's win over Trinity, never got on track against St. Thomas. She was in early foul trouble and played only 18 minutes before fouling out with two points and seven rebounds.
Sinn singled out Langer's stellar play on defense and the boards. The All-America and two-time MIAC Player of the Year pulled down a career-high 19 rebounds (11 in the first half) and tallied a game-high 18 points on four field goals and 10 free throws. It was her 44th consecutive game in double figures and the 27th double-double of her career.
"Kaitlin was so balanced and so strong tonight," Sinn said. "She was very poised."
Fast early start
St. Thomas never trailed, making the game's first basket on a Gabby Zehrer jumper. Whitman tied the game on the next possession and the Tommies answered with layups by Lucia Renikoff and Lauren Fischer to take a lead they never relinquished.
A 9-0 run capped by a Renikoff 3-pointer pushed the lead to 22-10 early in the second quarter, and then the Tommies stalled. They turned the ball over on five straight possessions, but Whitman couldn't take advantage, making only one of six shots during the four-minute span and trimming only three points off the St. Thomas lead.
Langer put an end to the drought with back-to-back layups and a free throw for a 27-13 lead. Whitman climbed to 30-23 before Renikoff, working the clock for the half's final shot, drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key with four seconds remaining and a 33-23 lead at the break.
The sophomore guard felt the shot helped set the tone of the second half. "Energy plays like that at the end of the half really can carry over to the third quarter," she said.
St. Thomas kept the lead in double figures most of the quarter before Whitman trimmed its deficit from 15 points to nine with 21 seconds left. Just as Renikoff had near the end of the first half, Wolkow found an open spot and swished a 3-pointer at the buzzer for a 48-36 lead.
"My teammates gave me great open looks," said Wolkow, whose third 3-pointer three minutes into the fourth quarter gave St. Thomas its biggest lead at 53-36. "We had great ball movement tonight."
The remainder of the game was mostly a trip to the free-throw line for the Tommies. They scored 12 of their 17 points in the fourth quarter on free throws, with Langer accounting for seven of them. She took only seven shots in the game, often double-teamed or fouled.
Next up: Tufts
St. Thomas will face Tufts, ranked No. 4 by d3hoops.com, in a Friday semifinal. The Jumbos (29-2) defeated No. 6 Washington (Mo.) 57-43 to advance to their fourth consecutive Final Four. The Jumbos' 6-foot-2 center, Michela North, finished with game highs of 20 points and 15 rebounds.
Tufts' only two losses came 36-35 and 41-37 to New England Small College Athletic Conference rival Amherst, which won its quarterfinal game over UMass-Dartmouth 73-33. Amherst (31-0) will play Christopher Newport (Va.), a 76-66 winner over Ohio Northern, in the other Final Four semifinal.
St. Thomas played Tufts and Amherst in women's basketball in the 2012 playoffs, but has not played Christopher Newport. The Tommies defeated Tufts 50-47 in a Sweet 16 game in Chicago and Amherst 87-60 in the Final Four third-place game after losing their semifinal game to Illinois Wesleyan.
• Whitman outrebounded St. Thomas 41-39 – thanks to 20 offensive rebounds – and the Tommies committed a season-high 21 turnovers, including 18 in the first three quarters. After Langer, Renikoff was the only Tommie scoring in double figure, with 14 points.
• The win over Whitman was No. 50 in NCAA tournament play for the Tommies. They are 50-23 (.684) in 24 NCAA playoff trips over the last 34 seasons and 17-5 (.773) in the last six years, when their overall record is 167-18 (.903).
• St. Thomas has won 47 of its last 48 games, with the only loss to Wartburg in the Sweet Sixteen a year ago. The Tommies have won 82 straight games over three years when allowing 65 or fewer points.