Senior forward Sarah Smith scored 14 points, including a key 3-point play with 38.6 seconds left, to lift St. Thomas to a 51-45 victory over Coe (Iowa) College in the second round of the NCAA Division-III basketball playoffs at Steve Fritz Court Saturday night.
With St. Thomas clinging to a five-point lead, Smith took a pass on the low post, spun to her left and drilled a short jumper while getting fouled. She sank the free throw to give St. Thomas a 48-40 lead, and two late Coe baskets were offset by Tommie free throws to decide the game.
With nine rebounds in the game, Smith said she was in the right place at the right time to make key shots.
“I guess it’s just something natural to me,” Smith said. “I always seem to be able to read the ball, and when they’re shooting it you can kind of tell when it’s going to be long or short.”
The No. 10-ranked Tommies (28-1) also got 11 points from guard Kelly Brandenburg in the low-scoring contest, which St. Thomas led 20-17 at halftime. Coe, champions of the Iowa Conference, ends its season at 21-8.
Coach Ruth Sinn said that Coe College was a “dynamic and athletic” team that needed to be kept from its usual 70- to 80-point winning score range.
“The game plan was to keep them in the 40s and we did that. Now, it would’ve been nicer to keep them in the 40s and get the plus one. We didn’t do that but all you have to do is win by one,” Sinn said.
And the Tommies did more than win by one, their defense dominated throughout the first half. In the same period, however, the team failed to make it to the free-throw line. Smith said the team changed the offensive attack for the next half.
“We knew every single time anyone went up we had three girls going up with them, so all we had to do was jump stop, give a head fake and go up,” Smith said. “Everyone seemed to be going up strong in the second half so it just worked to our advantage.”
The Tommies made it to the foul line within the first minutes of the second half, but a key 3-pointer from Coe College’s top scorer senior guard Leslie Ware (15 points) kept the scores close with a 25-21 Tommie lead.
Jumpers from sophomore guard Kelly Brandenburg and sophomore forward Taylor Young soon got the Tommies to 34-25.
Even though Young had a quiet performance with eight points, seven assists and four steals, Sinn said she’s a reliable player.
“Taylor is such a dynamic player. She’s a player that you can go to in any situation and we do. We go defensively to her and offensively to her,” Sinn said. “The thing is when you have a player like that you know you’ve got someone you can rely on.”
The Tommies scored eight free throws in the last five minutes of the game to secure their victory. Young made the two final baskets from the foul line bringing the Tommies to a 51-45 win.
St. Thomas will face Tufts (Mass.) in next weekend’s Sweet 16, probably on a neutral court in Chicago. The other half of the bracket will feature the University of Chicago against Calvin (Mich.)
The Tommies defeated Martin Luther 71-58 Friday night in the opening round, their first NCAA tournament victory in 11 years. Coe beat Wisconsin-River Falls in the other game. St. Thomas has won 28 games in a row after losing the season-opener. It is the Tommies 19th NCAA appearance, and the third under coach Ruth Sinn.
Weiers said the team will be ready for sectionals next week after some rest.
“We’re ecstatic. The locker room’s crazy. Obviously, we’re all a little tired from two games in a row so we’re going to try to get a lot of rest and then just prepare,” Weiers said. “I think our team is really good at preparing for big games, and I think that this week will be fun.”
Cynthia Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.