ST. PAUL, Minn. – When St. Thomas took the floor Monday afternoon for its first practice since qualifying for the Division III national semifinals, it did so in a Schoenecker Arena where the most dominant banner shows last year’s men’s basketball bracket. That’s the one with the Tommies’ men as the last team standing.
There are 14 national title banners hanging on the wall, including a 1991 one for women’s basketball. If you look out the glass doors to the gym, you can see the football field where the Tommies won to reach the national semifinals last December. The baseball team won a national title when this team’s seniors were freshmen.
For coach Ruth Sinn’s Tommies, which defeated No. 5 Calvin 83-72 in overtime on Saturday night to advance to the national semifinals for the first time since 2000, the thoughts were far more focused on the present day than tradition, however.
Who would players room with? How late could they sleep? When told there was a banquet to pack something dressy for, players asked, “How dressy?”
“Wedding dressy,” the response came back. When some had a quizzical look, it was clarified: “Like you’re going to your cousin’s wedding. And not as a bridesmaid.”
Although the Tommies (30-1) entered the postseason as the No. 12 team in the country, they hadn’t beaten a ranked team all season. They lost to Wisconsin-Stevens Point when the season began and didn’t play a ranked team in the tournament until facing Calvin and star center Carissa Verkaik in the quarterfinals. But the jump in competition level didn’t seem to have an impact on the Tommies, who led by as many as 11 in the second half and pulled away in overtime.
“I don’t think we looked at them any differently,” senior post player Sarah Smith said. “I think we knew that any team can beat us on any given night and we can beat any team. It was the exact same for us.”
The victory was the last one needed to fulfill a goal that forward Taylor Young said the team had for itself at the beginning of the year: “to get to Holland, Michigan.” But it was a goal that seemed a little more remote after the 70-53 loss in the season opener, in which Young was limited to six points and had seven turnovers.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect this at all after that Stevens Point game,” Young said. “I was a little rattled. I didn’t know what to expect from the season, personally or as a team. But I think we’ve definitely improved by bounds and bounds. We didn’t get discouraged.”
The team is an interesting mix of strong sophomores and seniors. Their top two scorers, 5-11 Young (13.5 points per game, including 25 against Calvin) and 6-2 center Maggie Weiers (11.6), are sophomores and weren’t here when the Tommies last made the NCAA tournament. And that was a one-and-done trip to UW-Whitewater in 2010, so the past three games have been uncharted territory all around. The other three starters, however, are all seniors: Smith (10.0 points per game), Ali Johnson (6.4) and Carolyn Dienhart, with fellow senior Haley Loesch seeing significant time off the bench.
“I think that even if we lead in scoring, our seniors lead in almost every other category,” Young said. “Sarah Smith has led our team in scoring on multiple occasions, same with Ali Johnson. Haley gives us a spark off the bench. She’s like the strongest girl on our team and gets a lot of tough rebounds. They’re just really good leaders overall. Carolyn [Dienhart] our coach always calls the general of our floor. She runs our plays and knows what we need to be in when we’re flustered.”
“One of the things with our team, sophomores, juniors, seniors, freshmen, it doesn’t matter,” Sinn said. “They’re basketball players, so what we’ve done is we’ve kind of eliminated that. Excellence is being your best when it counts the most. I think our sophomores have done well, just like our seniors. I think they all see they’re valuable members and they have to step up and bring what they’ve brought all year.”
Like last year’s men’s basketball team, and for that matter, this past season’s football team, Sinn’s Tommies subscribe to the maxim about defense and championships. The 72 points allowed to Calvin were the most the Tommies had surrendered all season, and Calvin got five extra minutes to do it.
“I liked our defense,” Sinn said. “I liked our intensity, I liked our passion, especially in the first half. In the first half I thought we had a real purpose to what we were doing.
“Sometimes it isn’t about what you’re giving up, it’s about how you’re contesting. That’s what we talked about to the team. We don’t always have control over whether they can make the shot. We want to make sure that those shots are tough shots. When you’re dealing with an All-American player in Verkaik, you’re going to give up some. Just so she’s not getting the easy shots or the second shots.”
The Tommies have been content to fly a little bit under the radar this season. The season-opening loss was one of just three non-conference games St. Thomas plays, because the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference has 12 schools that play women’s basketball. So while they didn’t get a chance to see a lot of ranked teams, that also means there’s not exactly a lot of video floating around on them, their quick guards or their press either.
And like the St. Thomas men in 2011, the women were a popular pick to get bounced early in the tournament. That’s a common theme bandied about by this team as well, but Sinn said it didn’t matter to her. “It’s more about what we believe than what about everyone else believes.”
But for the team, that pick and the road that the Tommie men took to Walnut and Bronze afterward definitely is on their mind. “We were very inspired,” Taylor said. “We’ve had coach [Steve] Fritz come talk to us and also coach Johnny Tauer [last year’s and this year’s men’s basketball head coaches] and tell us how that was for them, so that was really motivational.
“We know that last year the boys were also predicted as most likely to disappoint as were we this year, so we’re in the same situation and we’re trying to keep winning.”
“We want to continue everything we’ve been doing,” Sinn said in a meeting before practice. “We need to do everything with class, dignity and pride. We’re representing St. Thomas on the national stage.”
That’s something there’s been a lot of in the past few years.