A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Thomas More’s Saints make a run at No. 1 Ashland women’s 44-game win streak before falling at finish

By Dan Weber
NKyTribune sports reporter

Big early crowd here at the Connor Convocation Center Saturday. Even with the 1 p.m. tip. Smart fans.

And why wouldn’t they be. This is Thomas More women’s basketball with a Saints’ team that has been one of the nation’s best for most of the last decade – two-times NCAA Division III national champs and once in NAIA basketball, with two runner-up spots.

There’s a reason TMU Coach Jeff Hans is the NCAA’s all-time winningest women’s basketball coach at any level (minimum 160 games). His .938 winning percentage (210-14) is in a place populated only by Hans.

Madison Temple has her Thomas More jersey retired as Coach Jeff Hans, the NCAA’s winningest women’s basketball coach applauds her honor. (Photo by Dan Weber)

But it’s a new world for TMU Athletics this year, and a new conference. They’re in the NCAA Division II, not the NAIA, and the Great Midwest Conference, not the Mid-South.

And the visiting Ashland Eagles are pretty much on a planet all their own, as well, coming in on a 44-game win streak. The nation’s No. 1 Div. II women’s team is headed by the nation’s second-winningest NCAA coach in Kari Pickens (.909, 149-15).

Hence the early-arriving fans. Thomas More may have been just 4-3 after losing several of the Saints who led them to last year’s national runner-up finish after opening mostly on the road. But here they were, at the Connor Center, in front of a bunch of hometown fans, fighting like crazy, only to fall short, 70-62.

But for the first 20 minutes, they were making that old Saints’ magic work, coming from behind by seven, 19-12, to lead by five, 33-28, with 1:45 left in the first half. As we said, the bigger (five players 6-feet-tall or more), more experienced (four grad students and a senior) Ashland players who clearly know how to win, would lead by only one, 34-33, at intermission.

Although it was hard to say how the scrappy Saints (4-4, 1-2 GMAC) were doing so against the bigger, stronger, more experienced Eagles who, barely five minutes into the game, had already gone deep into their bench, inserting nine players into the game. TMU tried to keep pace, numbers-wise, with their nine.

TMU Coach Jeff Hans had no idea he was the NCAA’s winngest women’s basketball coach. (Photo by Dan Weber)

The big difference, as Hans noted at Ashland’s 27 (of 30) free throw shooting to TMU’s 17 (of 24) on the way to an eight-point win. “It’s their length,” Hans said of the Lady Eagles (8-0, 3-0). “They make it so difficult to score on them and then when their 6-2 kids rebound it, you’re guarding them with 5-6, 5-7’s and they reach in.”

“I wasn’t surprised at all (at how close this game was although Ashland is outscoring opponents by 28.7 points a game, second-highest margin in the nation),” said Pickens who has the distinction, Hans says, of “taking a team to a national championship as a player, assistant coach and coach.”

“Thomas More’s a great team,” Pickens said. “I love Jeff Hans.”

But Hans had no idea that this game was matching up college basketball’s top two winningest coaches. “I have no clue what you’re asking about,” Hans said. “No idea.”

On being told a second time that he’s the nation’s winningest women’s NCAA basketball coach right now, Hans responded with: “I guess that’s a good thing” and then, “We’ve had a lot of good players, some of them here today.”

Just not quite enough of them on the floor, not against this Ashland juggernaut. “That’s a great team,” Hans said.

And no, this won’t be something that will go up on the wall for the Saints. “We’re not in this for moral victories,” Hans said. Even if this was a classic example of one.

Down by 11 – 44-33 — early in the second half on Ashland’s 10-0 opening run after intermission, TMU just would not go away, twice getting it to within five – 60-55 and 64-59 – before getting shot down in a barrage of 90.0-percent free throw shooting by Ashland. Check the NBA box scores this weekend. See if any team hits nine of every ten from the line.

Closing to within five points twice in the final minutes, TMU women in a final huddlle (Photo by Dan Weber)

A pair of TMU seniors – 6-foot Alex Smith and 5-4 Rachel Martin — who have been through all the tough tests for the Saints’ three-straight national finalist teams, led the way with 16 points each.

“It goes to show we can go up against teams like that,” Martin said.

Ashland was led by 5-4 senior Savaya Brockington’s career-high 20 points (10 of 10 from the line) and 6-1 Hayley Smith’s 18.

“I didn’t know if we could hold ‘em to 70,” Hans said. They did. “And I didn’t know if we could get to 70. We couldn’t.”

But they got close. And gave the team that’s won 44 straight a bit of a scare. And gave themselves a look at how they’ll have to play the rest of the way.

TMU NOTED: Before the game, Thomas More retired the jersey of Madison Temple, the Saints’ all-time career scorer with 2,184 points.

ASHLAND 19 15 17 19—70
THOMAS MORE 18 15 9 20—62
ASHLAND (8-0, 3-0): H. Smith 4 1 5 14, Rosnak 6-0-0-12, Brockington 4 2 10 20, Yoder 0 0 0 0, Spielman 2 0 3 7, Howe 1 1 2 5, Miller 1 0 5 7, Daniels 1 1 2 5, McKee 0 0 0 0, TOTALS: 19-53 5-23 27-30 70.
THOMAS MORE (4-4, 1-2): Turner 0 0 4 4, A. Smith 5 1 5 16; Brenner 0 0 2 2, Jones 3 0 0 6, Martin 5 2 4 16, Leonard 3 1 1 8, Hunt 1 0 0 2, Tandy 0 0 1 1, Vickers 3 1 0 7, Noel 0 0 0 0, TOTALS: 20-51 5-18 17-24 62.

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