By DOUG HENNES
WAVERLY, IOWA – Heading into Friday night's Sweet 16 NCAA Division III playoff game against East Texas Baptist, St. Thomas felt it was ready for a close, physical contest. An opponent had pushed the Tommes to the end in five of their last eight games, and each time they prevailed with exciting late wins.
But another incredibly close game did not go No. 6 St. Thomas' way against unranked East Texas Baptist, which survived a Tommies' rally from 10 points down late in the fourth quarter to hang on for a 61-58 overtime win. The loss ended their season at 27-3 and denied them the opportunity to play Saturday night for a return trip to the Final Four next weekend.
"We battled," coach Ruth Sinn said. "We were down by 10 and we didn't back down. But it just wasn't enough."
Sinn cited a key sequence with 1:26 remaining in regulation. Junior center Hannah Spaulding made a layup and a free throw for St. Thomas' first and only lead of the game at 53-52. But the Tigers tied the game on a free throw and the Tommies missed an ensuing 3-pointer. Neither team could convert good chances in the last 80 seconds.
"We were hoping," Sinn said. "When you get in that position, it comes down to needing a score, a stop and another score. Unfortunately, we did not get that."
The Tommies also cooled off after rallying from the 50-40 deficit with 10 straight points and a tie after junior guard Kaylee Brazil drained a 3-pointer with 2:17 left in the fourth quarter. They made just two field goals and shot 2 for 9 in the last seven minutes of the game.
Sinn brought Spaulding, who had game highs of 28 points and 11 rebounds, and seniors Maddie Wolkow and Lauren Fischer to the post-game news conference. She praised them for "phenomenal" play, with Wolkow and Fischer having a 114-9 record in winning four MIAC regular-season titles, four conference playoff titles and four Sweet Sixteen berths.
"They had a target on their back," Sinn said, "and every night they gave it their best shot."
Tough East Texas Baptist 'D"
Both teams started slowly, with East Texas Baptist using an 11-0 run to lead 18-8 after the first quarter. The Tigers deployed a tight 2-3 zone that frustrated the Tommies, who were held under 10 points for the first time this year in an opening quarter.
"We knew they'd stay in that zone," Sinn said, and the strategy succeeded. "They disrupted our offensive flow."
The Tigers built four eight-point leads in the second quarter. But each time St. Thomas responded behind Spaulding, who poured in 11 points in the period, and trailed only 28-24 at the break.
The Tommies drew even at 30-30 on a Spaulding layup, but could not forge ahead. Three consecutive Tiger layups pushed their lead to 50-40 with 4:30 left in the fourth quarter, but then "we got more of a flow going," Sinn said. "We played more of an up-tempo game. The Brazil 3-pointer set the stage for the exciting final seven minutes.
"We saw a great team make plays," first-year East Texas Baptist coach Rusty Rainbolt, who took over a team that finished 3-22 last year, said of St. Thomas. "We've been behind in a lot of games this year. When it got close, I honestly wasn't worried because we had been there."
• The statistics for both teams were remarkably similar. East Texas State had slight edges in shooting (42.9 percent to 40.4 percent) and rebounds (36-33) but had four more turnovers (22-18). Each team made six 3-pointers and the Tigers had a 13-6 edge at the free throw line. The loss was the first time this year a team had held St. Thomas under 60 points.
• The loss denied Sinn her 300th win in 13 seasons at St. Thomas. She is 299-79 (.791), including 194-22 (.898) over the last seven seasons. The Tommies have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in six of those seven years, missing only in 2014, when they lost a second-round game. Their all-time record in 25 NCAA appearances is 51-25 (.671).