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At home in Sioux City, Thomas More wins its way into one last NAIA championship run Saturday night

By Dan Weber
NKyTribune sports reporter

The Thomas More women’s basketball team did what the Thomas More women do: They won their way into a third straight NAIA national championship game Friday night at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.

Point guard Rachel Martin made a couple of big plays in TMU’s end-game winning run.

Although the defending champion Saints did it a bit differently this time – they did it as the underdogs.

The No. 4 overall seed Saints were matched up against the No. 1 overall seed, Central Methodist (Mo.), an unbeaten 35-0 team loaded with Division I transfers, not to mention an international star from Minsk, Belarus.

And Central Methodist had revenge on its mind. The last game the Eagles had lost came 36 games ago – to Thomas More, 82-62, in the NAIA Fab Four semifinals a year ago. And then they ran into the Saints once again in the semis.

Same result. After building a 41-29 halftime lead with Central Methodist’s 6-foot-3 center Leah Johnson, a transfer from Rider, on the bench early with three fouls, TMU made a 38-20 run to intermission Then the Saints had to survive a run in the other direction.

Central Methodist tied the game at 56-56. “They made adjustments and got their starters back in and we didn’t handle it well,” Thomas More Coach Jeff Hans said. “They took it to us.”

Once again, Alex Smith led MU in scoring off the bench Friday

They started guarding the Thomas More high ball-screen offense better. And the Saints weren’t as accurate on shooting their threes after halftime. “I think we made just one in the second half,” Hans said. “We were struggling.”

So now it was TMU’s time to make adjustments with 5:16 left and the game tied. “We got stops and were able to take the ball to the rim and score,” Hans said. “And we hit our free throws.”< In a 15-3 five-minute run, TMU got a go-ahead field goal from super-sub Alex Smith and then a free throw, got four-for-four from the free throw line from Zoie Barth, got a field goal and two-for-two from the line from Rachel Martin and a field goal and two free throws from Emily Simon to make it 71-59 with 13 seconds left.

Leading by 12 at halftime, “I told them it’s not over,” Hans said. And it surely wasn’t. But after TMU’s final run, it was.

“We didn’t turn it over,” Hans said of Thomas More’s 11 turnovers, two fewer than Central Methodist. And they were outrebounded 41-33 by the taller Eagles. But where TMU made up the difference was from the bench, outscoring the Eagles 21-10 there.

Thomas More outshot Central Methodist, 42.6 percent (23 of 54) to 37.3 (25 of 67) with a big part of that from three-point range where TMU hit on nine of 24 (37.5 percent) to Central’s two pf 19 (10.5 percent).

Where TMU got hurt was on second-chance points where the bigger Eagles outscored the Saints, 19-2.

For the Saints, Smith led the way again with 16 points. Simon added 15, Barth 13 and Courtney Hurst 11.

Now 31-3 with its second straight 30-win season and third straight trip to the finals, Thomas More will face a Clarke (Iowa) team (32-4) that beat Dakota State (SD) (29-7), 79-69, in the other semifinals. Game time is 8 p.m. ET. It’s the second straight year Thomas More will play a home-state Iowa team in the finals. Last year, TMU beat Dordt to win the championship.

Not to worry, Hans said. As the Saints head into the third straight championship at the Tyson Events Center, “We’re treating it like a home away from home . . . they treat us well here . . . it’s like we belong.”

The ironic thing about TMU’s run to the championship game again this season is that it’s the last year for Thomas More in the NAIA as it transitions from the NAIA’s Mid-South Conference, mostly in Tennessee and Kentucky, to the NCAA’s Division II and the Ohio-centric Great Midwest Conference.

But not just yet. The Saints have one last run in them Saturday night in Sioux City.

THOMAS MORE 15 26 13 17–71
CENTRAL METHODIST 13 16 21 11-61
THOMAS MORE (31-3): Courtney Hurst 11, Emily Simon 15, Alex Smith 16, Rylee Turner 5, Zoie Barth 13, Kelly Brenner 5, Rachel Martin 6, Maggie Jones 0, Mattison Vickers 0, TOTAL: 71.
CENTRAL METHODIST (35-1): Zutorya Cook 16, Daryna Bachkarova 13, Leianya Massenat 12, Robin Beck 8, Leah Johnson 10, Jaicia Canady 0, Audrey Graham 0, Natalia Shpegel 2, TOTAL: 61.

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