Gene's Blog: Call 'em 49ers after this Cheesehead's heroics

Gene's Blog: Call 'em 49ers after this Cheesehead's heroics

What do the St. Paul Hotel and Schoenecker Arena have in common? 

Both venues have lobbies that are good for people watching. And both venues can provide a wake-up call.

The No. 10-ranked Tommie Women's Basketball team received the latter on Wednesday night. If you don't play with intensity, poise and focus for all 40 minutes, most teams will make you pay.

The Tommies started the evening with 12 victories in a row and a 48-game MIAC win streak spanning three seasons. They left the court 90 minutes later with a teachable moment... and a major sigh of relief. 

Instead of a frustrating, streak-busting loss, they persevered to a 70-66 overtime victory over a young but dangerous Augsburg squad.

In reaching a 20-2 overall record and 15-0 conference mark, the Tommies somehow overcame a four-point deficit in the final eight seconds.

It's a sidelight to more pressing goals, but the escape gives the Toms 49 consecutive wins over conference opponents. Only the women from Thomas More (130), the U Conn Huskies (108) and UW-Superior (50) have longer current conference streaks in all of NCAA men's or women's hoops. The MIAC record is 65 by the Tommies from 1994-98.

 

Chess Match

Nothing should surprise you at Schoenecker, especially on a special night when head coaches Ted Riverso of Augsburg and Ruth Sinn of the Tommies went head-to-head. 

Ted put St. Thomas women's hoops on the map in his 15-year run here as head coach from 1984-1999 -- one NCAA championship, two other Final Fours, five MIAC titles, 25 NCAA playoff victories and an .808 win percentage. St. Thomas had the best winning clip in Division III women's hoops throughout the 1990s (.870). Riverso coached one National Player of the Year and athletes that received seven All-America honors here.

Ruth has done her part over her 13 years to keep the Tommies near the top of Division III. She's guided the Tommies to two Final Fours, three 30-win seasons, 36 postseason victories in the last 10 seasons, and 13 MIAC regular-season or playoff crowns over the last 11 years. She has coached one National Player of the Year and athletes that have received five All-America honors here. 

After his 15 years at St. Thomas, Ted worked another eight as a University of Minnesota women's assistant coach. He's now in his third year with the Auggies, a feisty team with 10 freshmen and sophomores on a 12-player roster. Forget their 11-10 record -- take them lightly at your own risk.

A group of Ted's former Tommie standout players came out Wednesday night to watch, and they were treated to a 45-minute chess match orchestrated by the two savvy coaches.

 

Out of Sync

The Tommies missed chances and led just 33-26 at halftime. In the second half, Sinn's squad played tight at times, and looked tired in other spells, although credit Augsburg's hustle and execution. Elite center Hannah Spaulding seemed slightly off her game -- if a 27-point, 13-rebound night in 37 minutes can ever be called an off night. Senior Lauren Fischer had 10 rebounds but missed seven of her first eight shots.

The Auggies used a late 6-0 run to build a 62-58 lead with :08 left on the clock. What's that sports cliche: It's not over until an opera performer, or Kenny Rogers, sings? It sure looked like it was time for Augsburg to hold 'em and for St. Thomas to 'fold 'em. Then the Tommies switched the card games to Crazy :08s and Go Fisch.

Spaulding was fouled with seven seconds to go. The nation's leading field-goal shooter air balled a free throw, then made the second to cut the deficit to three. She quickly fouled an Auggie on the inbounds play -- ending her night with five fouls. Augsburg had two free throws and a prospect of winning on the KS95 to Cities 97 spectrum, a percentage somewhere between 94.5 and 97.1.

Both Auggie free throws bounced off the rim. UST rebounded and called a quick time out. The new NCAA women's time out rule advanced the ball down court in front of the Tommie bench. After a quick Augsburg foul meant to kill more clock, St. Thomas' inbounds play found Fischer alone in the corner. And b'gosh, the 6-footer from Oshkosh, a 43-percent career 3-point shooter, sank her 157th trey as a Tommie to tie the game.

Playing overtime without the fouled-out Spaulding -- who averages 21 points, 8.4 boards and 2.5 blocks a game and makes 72.3 percent from the floor -- St. Thomas found a way. The team's other senior, guard Maddie Wolkow, sank a big trey to let her surpass 500 career points, then the Auggies' leading scorer Camryn Speese, fouled out with 2:00 left to play. The Toms closed the night on an 8-2 run. Fischer gave the Toms some breathing room when she sank two free throws with :22 to play for a 70-66 lead, which turned out to be the final score.

The Tommie women's wow moments usually happen in the game's first 39 minutes on the clock. Old-school Tommie fans recall a cold January night in 2003 in the old Schoenecker when Amy Kittelson came off the bench with under three seconds left and sank a buzzer-beater 3-pointer to force overtime in an eventual win over the Cobbers. And two seasons ago, the Tommies opened the NCAA playoffs in big trouble against Loras, trailing by nine in the final 3:00. Fischer sank a 3-pointer and made the tying layup to force overtime in an eventual St. Thomas win en route to a later Sweet 16 playoff trip.

PHOTO: Lauren Fischer (34) sank the shot of the season for the Toms (Haley Staffon photo)

 

Senior Moments

Fischer and Wolkow help the team in many areas, but their scoring is always welcome. St. Thomas is 48-1 in games when Fischer has scored eight or more points on her career, and she's closing in on 800 career points. The Toms are 14-1 in games when Wolkow has scored in double figures. In their four-year era, the Toms are 73-1 in games when they score 69 or more points.

In fact the seniors have helped St. Thomas build a 107-8 record (73-2 against MIAC opponents). Both marks are on pace for the best winning women's basketball percentage by any senior class here. The Toms' previous best MIAC record was 78-4 by the senior class that included Hall of Famer Kirsten Vipond (1994-98). UST's best overall four-year record was 102-10 from 1996-2000. 

St. Thomas had learned earlier in the day they are ranked No. 2 behind unbeaten Wartburg in the West Region by the NCAA. Besides an MIAC title, St. Thomas is also playing for NCAA playoff seeding. One unexpected loss could mean a road trip instead of home court in March.

Sinn doesn't need her team to be flawless in these final three games of the regular season starting Saturday at St. Olaf. But Thursday's practice kicked off with a film session. The feature film: Augsburg second half. It had a happy ending, but plenty of scary parts. Consider it a wake-up call for the Purple.

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Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working his 24th season at St. Thomas and 30th overall in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the MIAC and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at ejmcgivern@stthomas.edu