HOLLAND, Mich. — Senior forward Ali Johnson’s game-high and career-best 24 points guided the St. Thomas women’s basketball team to an 87-60 victory over No. 1-ranked Amherst College in the NCAA tournament consolation game Saturday.
Johnson was hot from beyond the arc, tying a career-best and school record six 3-pointers. Five of her 3-pointers came in the first half, along with 20 of her 24 points. Her career-best shooting performance guided the Tommies on a key 22-2 run, giving the team a double-digit lead for most of the first half after trailing 7-1 early.
Johnson said her teammates’ confidence in her fueled her hot-shooting streak.
“They got me the ball, and I let them fly,” Johnson said.
Amherst scored the first points of the game off senior guard Caroline Stedman’s 3-point shot. Baskets by senior guard Lem Atanga McCormick and senior guard Shannon Finucane gave the 2011 national champions a six-point lead four minutes into the game.
From that point on, the Tommies took control and dominated their opponent. Johnson scored back-to-back baskets (including two 3-pointers) three times to spark the St. Thomas offense. The Tommies went on a 22-2 run until McCormick nailed a three for Amherst, cutting into St. Thomas’ 28-12 lead.
Amherst coach G.P. Gromacki said this “wasn’t their weekend,” but he gave a lot of credit to St. Thomas.
“We had a little lead; then all of a sudden, they broke out and made some big threes and got it rolling,” Gromacki said.
The Lord Jeffs were able to make a small comeback late in the first half. Down 20 with 3:32 left in the half, senior center Lem Atanga McCormick scored five of her 13 points with free throws and layups. Stedman cut the Tommies’ lead to 12 after sinking a buzzer-beating layup.
Senior Ali Johnson, sophomore Maggie Weiers and coach Ruth Sinn talk about Saturday’s third-place finish and reflect on the season. (Ryan Shaver/TommieMedia)
St. Thomas crushed any hope of an Amherst comeback by continuing its stellar play in the second half. Sophomore forward Taylor Young hit a jumper to start a 10-4 Tommie run. Sophomore center Maggie Weiers was the offensive force in the second half, scoring 12 of her 21 points in the final 20 minutes.
The Tommies’ lead ballooned to 20 points a couple of times, capitalizing on their game plan to go out and play their best after the heartbreaking loss to Illinois Wesleyan.
“We felt like we let ourselves down (last night),” coach Ruth Sinn said. “Our goal today coming into this game was…we go out knowing we left everything on the floor. If we did that, I said the scoreboard would take care of itself.”
Stedman, who was the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Final Four last year, gave the Tommies all the credit for this blowout win.
“They came out and fought really hard today,” Stedman said. “They put us away early and never looked back.”
The Tommies played excellent defense, too. They held the Lord Jeffs to 60 points, 15 points fewer than their season average. Amherst only hit 32 percent of its shots.
St. Thomas’ 87-point effort was the most Amherst has allowed in six seasons. The Tommies also hit nearly 43 percent of their 3’s.
After the game, Young, who leads the Tommies in scoring and free throw percentage, learned D3hoops.com had named her one of its 20 All-America honorees. Young earned fourth-team All-America honors and is the only sophomore on the team.
“It is such a honor,” Young said. “I don’t think I would have gotten all this success without my team.”
The sophomore duo of Weiers and Young hopes to lead the program back to the Final Four in upcoming seasons. Weiers considers the Final Four a “big step” for St. Thomas.
Young agreed and said the win over the defending national champions, who were ranked No. 1 all season, was a “statement” game.
“We tried to go out there and have fun and shake off yesterday…and that’s what we did,” Young said.
Johnson, who is one of the four seniors on the team, called the entire weekend a “special experience” and loved ending her career with a win.
“I can’t imagine a better way to go out as a senior,” Johnson said.
Senior center Sarah Smith, who tallied eight points in her final game as a Tommie, appreciated all the support her team received throughout the season.
“We have been the dark horse of the athletic program at St. Thomas (over the past decade),” Smith said. “It’s nice to get a little recognition this time around.”
The team’s 31-2 record is the best in program history and ties a MIAC record for most wins in a single season. Sinn can’t imagine having a better season.
“I think if these ladies were to look back, they would say, ‘I would do it the same way,’’’ Sinn said.
Hayley Schnell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.