By DOUG HENNES
For the second game in a row, No. 2-ranked St. Thomas found itself trailing early in the fourth quarter of a tight NCAA Division III playoff game at home, with the momentum seemingly on the side of the unranked visiting team.
And for the second game in a row, the Tommies found a way to claw their way back into the lead and dominate the fourth quarter en route to a hard-fought victory.
The latest result was a 62-55 win Friday night over Marymount of Virginia in the Sweet 16, earning St. Thomas (30-0) its third trip to the Elite 8 round in six years and matching the 2014-15 team for the best start in school history.
The Tommies will play Whitman, a 69-59 winner over Trinity, at 7 p.m. Saturday in Schoenecker Arena for the right to advance to the Final Four March 17-18 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Coach Ruth Sinn smiled in a post-game news conference when asked about her team's play from behind – something that rarely has occurred this season. The Tommies trailed Chicago last Saturday by eight points in the third quarter and three early in the fourth but rallied to go up by nine and win 73-69. Against Marymount, the deficit was six points in the fourth quarter.
"Again, this had to be an exciting game for a fan to watch," Sinn said, repeating a statement she made after the Chicago win. "Give Marymount (24-6) credit. They executed so well … they are disciplined and they understand what their strengths are."
The difference proved to be a 10-0 run by the Tommies when they trailed 51-45 after the Saints had scored 12 points in a row. Marymount coach Ashlee Rogers pointed out how the momentum kept shifting back and forth, and Sinn referred to St. Thomas softball coach John Tschida's theory about momentum.
"Momentum is moment by moment, and you have to put the moments together," Sinn said. "Even when we were down by six, we kept talking about what do we need to do defensively to get stops and, offensively, how to get the big shots."
Both teams struggled near the end of the game. Marymount made only one field goal in the last nine minutes, and after backup center Hannah Spaulding made her fourth layup of the second half to give St. Thomas a 57-54 lead with 3:32 remaining, neither team could put the ball in the hoop. The Tommies had back-to-back turnovers and Marymount missed two shots and turned over the ball.
And then senior Paige Gernes stepped up for the Tommies. With the shot clock running down, Gernes buried a 3-point shot from the corner for a 60-54 lead with 1:11 to go. It was her third 3-pointer of the night – all coming from a point guard who came into the game having made 6 of only 17 treys this season and 11 in 86 games during her career.
"Never!" Gernes laughed when asked if she previously had made more than one 3-pointer in a game – in college or high school. "I just don't take them," preferring to drive and pass. But against Marymount, the 3-pointers came late in the shot clock, "and I felt I was open enough to take them."
"Paige does whatever we need," Sinn said. "To have that unselfish of a player and a leader on your team . . ." The coach turned to the player and said, "Paige, I thoroughly love coaching you because you do everything for your team."
Slow start for both teams
Marymount deployed a defense similar to Chicago's against Kaitlin Langer, double-teaming the All-American center and denying passes into the low post. She went 0 for 4 in the first quarter and 1 for 8 in the first half, which featured eight lead changes before Fischer made a reverse layup and a 3-pointer on back-to-back possessions to give the Tommies a 28-26 lead at halftime.
St. Thomas opened the third quarter with a Lucia Renikoff 3-pointer and a Langer layup to build a seven-point point lead, but Marymount kept within striking distance as the teams traded baskets over the next four minutes. The Tommies were particularly effective when Langer, at 6-foot-3, and Spaulding, at 6-foot-2, played the double low post and combined for four straight layups.
"We hadn't been able to go inside-out much," Sinn said, and she credited assistant coach Brian Silk for the low-post strategy. "Coach Silk said go big, and it paid off."
"By putting both of us in, Hannah was going to be open or I was going to be open," Langer said, pointing out how the Saints, with their tallest player at 6 feet, couldn't handle both of them.
Down 45-39, Marymount made adjustments and the Tommies cooled off. They missed their last five shots of the third quarter – four from 3-point range – and a half-court shot at the buzzer by Marymount's Leah Hurst gave the Saints a 46-45 lead.
Two layups and a free throw extended their lead to 51-45, the largest fourth-quarter deficit that St. Thomas has faced this year. Langer, just as she did in her 10-point fourth quarter against Chicago, took over. She made two free throws, a layup and three more free throws in a 2:20 span and those seven points, combined with a Renikoff 3-pointer, made up a 10-0 run and a 55-51 lead.
Whitman tops Trinity in opener
Whitman used a strong second-half start to grab a 10-point lead and held on to defeat Trinity 69-59 in the opening game.
The No. 16 Blues (26-4) from Walla Walla, Wash., led 30-29 at halftime but scored the first eight points of the third quarter and held Trinity scoreless for nearly five minutes. The Tigers cut their deficit to 54-50 midway through the fourth quarter but could get no closer.
Whitman dominated the boards 58-33, and its 17 offensive rebounds led to 42 points in the lane. Emily Rommel led with 16 points and 10 rebounds, followed by Casey Poe with 14 and Chelsi Brewer with 11. Makana Stone, with 11 rebounds, led four Blues with eight or more rebounds.
• St. Thomas shot only 31 percent in the first half, far from its season average of 45.6, which ranks sixth in Division III. The Tommies shot 57 percent in the second half to finish at 41.5 percent on the game. They were 9 of 25 (36 percent) from 3-point range.
• The win gives the Tommies their third 30-win season in six seasons (30-1 two years ago and 31-2 in 2011-12, when they finished third in the country). During those six years, they are 166-18 (.902), with a 28-5 (.848) playoff record, including 16-5 in the NCAA and 12-0 in the MIAC.
• Over the last nine years, St. Thomas basketball teams have seven 30-win seasons. The men were 30-1 in 2008-09, 30-3 in 2010-2011, 30-2 in 2012-13 and 30-3 in 2015-16.
• Langer has scored in double figures for 43 straight games. In 10 post-season starts, she has averaged 20.4 points and nine rebounds per game. This season, she has led team in scoring 21 games and in rebounding 20 games.