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In their 3rd straight NAIA championship basketball game, Thomas More women come up short at the end

By Dan Weber
NKyTribune sports reporter

His Thomas More Saints players “will have a lot of good memories” from their three straight years in Sioux City, Iowa, playing for the NAIA national championship in women’s basketball, Coach Jeff Hans said.

Although Saturday night won’t necessarily be one of them. “A lot of tears,” Hans said after the defending champion Saints seemed to run out of gas against a Clarke University (Iowa), losing 63-52, in their final game ever in the NAIA as they return to the NCAA next season.

But you wouldn’t have known it with 4:01 to go and the score tied at 50. These two small Catholic colleges were playing like mirror images of one another, which they almost are.

With just 654 undergrads, the Dubuque, Iowa school overlooking the Mississippi river, is a bit smaller than Thomas More. And unlike the defending champion Saints, the Clarke Pride had never won an NAIA title in any sport.

Until Saturday.

When Clarke made a 13-2 run to the finish, holding Thomas More without a field goal those final difficult minutes.

“They played really well, we didn’t,” Hans said of a 32-4 Clarke team that hadn’t won its Heartland Conference championship. Central Methodist, the unbeaten No. 1 overall seed that TMU beat, 71-61, in Friday’s semifinal, had.

But the “good memories” in Sioux City will last, Hans said. “Playing for the national championship three years in a row after transitioning to the NAIA from the NCAA Division III is special. Not too many teams do that. And we won one of the three.

“What these guys have done is really special,” Hans said.

Just maybe not on this night. “We missed shots, open shots, rushed shots,” Hans said. “Some of that was on us, some of that because of them.”

Clarke did it those final minutes the way the Pride had all night, using their quickness and aggressiveness to make it extremely difficult for TMU, which finished 31-4, to score from the perimeter while not allowing the Saints to drive the ball to the basket.

Thomas More did what the Saints so often do, forcing 22 turnovers from Clarke while giving it away just nine times themselves. But that was more than balanced out by a bigger Clark team’s 44-22 edge on the boards.

Thomas More hit just 19 of 58 (32.2 percent) of its field goal attempts (just six of 27 for 22.5 percent from three-point territory) with only two of those in the second half. “That might have been the worst we shot it all year,” Hans said. And the worst time for it to happen.

Clarke didn’t shoot it much better, hitting the same number of field goals (19) on 45 attempts (42.2 percent) and just four of 13 (30.8) from three.

But one place Clarke’s shooting excelled – the free throw line. The Pride got to the line 23 times to TMU’s 11 and converted 21 of those (91.3 percent) to Thomas More’s eight (72.1 percent).

Hard to overcome a 13-point deficit at the free throw line.

But Thomas More had overcome a number of deficits in this game, opening down 10-0 before closing to 18-11 at the end of the first period. And by halftime, Clarke led just 26-25.

And despite falling behind by 10 again, 40-30, in the third, the Saints closed it to 42-41 to start the fourth. So even when they fell behind, 50-44, it was no surprise that after Courtney Hurst hit a three and then Zoie Barth drove for a score and hit the free throw after being fouled, the Saints were all even at 50.

“We kept coming from behind all night,” Hans said. Until they couldn’t come back anymore.

Clarke nailed three field goals and seven free throws down the stretch while Thomas More didn’t make a single shot from the field in five attempts and could convert only a pair of Emily Simon free throws.

The team from the other end of Iowa, 300 miles to the east on US 20 from the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, had beaten a Saints team playing in its third straight national championship game.

A Clarke team that hadn’t won its conference won it all when everything lined up for the Pride. Before going out and scoring 17 points to lead Clarke, top scorer Nicole McDermott said, “This morning, I didn’t think I was going to be able to play,” with an ankle injury. But she did.

“We knew we needed to run them off the three-point line,” said Clarke Coach Courtney Boyd, only the ninth female to lead a women’s national championship NAIA team. “Up one was our goal, I would not have said up 11.”

Not after the way Thomas More handled Central Methodist the night before, a team Clarke could not beat.

But you only get one chance at a national championship game and Clarke took it as Thomas More said goodbye to the NAIA and begins transitioning to the NCAA’s Division II next season.


CLARKE (Iowa) 18 8 16 21-63

THOMAS MORE 11 14 15 11-52

CLARKE (Iowa) (33-4): Tina Ubl 9, Nicole McDermott 17, Taylor Haase 6, Emma Kelchen 4, Izzie Petewrson 4, Gina Michels 14, Mya Merschman 5, Skylar Culbertson 4, Anisha Vondenkamp 0, Madison Lindauer 0, Jenna Blunt 0, Beatrice Atienza 0, Lily Schilling 0, TOTAL: 63.

THOMAS MORE (31-4): Zoie Barth 16, Courtney Hurst 13, Emily Simon 11, Kelly Brenner 3, Rylee Turner 0, Alex Smith 7, Maggie Jones 0, Mattison Vickers 0, Rachel Martin 0,  Sammi Whiteman 2, Jenna Lillard 0, Callie Hunt 0, Natalie Noel 0, Hailie Morgan 0, Alyssa Elswick 0, TOTAL: 52.

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