By DOUG HENNES
So close. So very close.
That was the feeling of the St. Thomas women's basketball team Friday night.
Trailing most of the game, the Tommies went on a 12-1 run early in the fourth quarter to take what felt like a commanding 53-41 lead over No. 4 Tufts with 5:30 left in their Final Four semifinal game in Grand Rapids, Mich.
But the Jumbos got hot, made five of their last seven shots – including three 3-pointers – and closed with a 19-4 run for a 60-57 win that ended St. Thomas' quest to play for the NCAA Division III championship on Saturday night.
The No. 2-ranked Tommies finished their season 31-1.
Tufts gets another shot at No. 1-ranked Amherst in Saturday night's finals after taking its only season defeats to its NESCAC conference rival. Amherst beat Christopher Newport 66-51 to move to 32-0.
"Give Tufts (30-2) credit," St. Thomas coach Ruth Sinn said. "They had their backs against the wall and they made great plays in the end."
"I'm so proud of our players and how they competed tonight," Sinn said. "These women are phenomenal . . . amazing . . . strong . . . confident."
"We worked so hard to get here," Gernes said. "We obviously did not want to see it end this way."
The loss spoiled one of the more dominant career performances by Langer, a two-time All-America center. She scored 20 points, including 10 in a row to vault the Tommies into the fourth-quarter lead, and grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds.
Close first half
Both teams started slowly, missing a combined eight shots and turning the ball over three times before Tufts jumped to a 7-2 lead. St. Thomas didn't make its first basket until halfway through the first quarter but trailed only 14-9 at the break, thanks to Langer's six points and eight rebounds.
A layup off a drive by sophomore guard Lucia Renikoff gave the Tommies their first lead at 23-21, but Tufts closed the half on a 9-2 run to lead 30-25.
The Jumbos held six-point leads on three occasions in the third quarter before an 10-0 run by the Tommies gave them a 41-37 lead. Langer's two free throws capped the scoring for St. Thomas, which held a 43-40 lead going into the fourth quarter.
And that's when Langer, who sat out the last 6:48 of the first half with two fouls, got hot. She made layups off drives on four straight possessions in less than three minutes to give St. Thomas a 51-41 lead, making the final shot after pulling down two offensive rebounds.
"It was just confidence – the feel and energy of the game," Langer said. "I was getting good touches."
Sinn said Tufts excelled in shutting down the lane and doubling Langer when she got the ball in the first three quarters, but the Tommies finally broke through during her 10-point run. "We could go inside out by the dribble or the big pass," Sinn said, "and Kaitlin did a nice job of getting open."
A Zehrer layup gave St. Thomas its largest lead at 53-41, and then fortunes reversed quickly.
Tufts scored nine points in a row to close to 53-50. A Langer layup gave St. Thomas a 55-50 lead with 1:38 left, but Tufts tied the game 22 seconds later on a Melissa Baptista 3-pointer, steal and layup. Another St. Thomas turnover was followed by another Tufts 3-pointer and a 58-55 lead with 32 seconds remaining in the game.
A Renikoff jumper in the lane cut the deficit to a point with 11 seconds to go, but Tufts made two free throws to build a three-point lead. Renikoff's shot from outside the top of the key with a second left grazed the rim.
Tufts coach Carla Berube said she felt fortunate her team was able to regroup when it trailed by 12 points. She called St. Thomas "a tremendous team all around" and Langer "a force – a beast – in the lane and on the boards."
- St. Thomas dominated the boards 46-22, including 28-13 in the second half, but committed 20 turnovers to only nine by Tufts. The Jumbos scored 21 points off turnovers. The Tommies outshot Tufts 41-39 percent but made only 3 of 13 3-pointers.
- The 57 points scored by St. Thomas were the second most given up this year by Tufts, which is second in Division III scoring defense at 42.4 points per game. The Tommies' 57 points were their lowest of the season, and their 82-game winning streak when they allowed 65 or fewer points was snapped.
- Langer finished her career with 28 double-doubles (in points and rebounds) and scored in double figures for 45 straight games over two years. In 12 post-season starts, she averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.
- St. Thomas still posted the best winning percentage in the 40-year history of the program with its 31-1 final record.