CHICAGO — Junior guard Kellie Ring made two free throws with 15 seconds left after a key steal, and No.10-ranked St. Thomas held off Tufts, 50-47, in the NCAA Division III Sweet 16 basketball game Friday, March 9, at the University of Chicago.
The Tommies (29-1) led by as many as 14 in the second half against the unranked Jumbos (23-7), but Tufts fought back to within 48-47 after senior forward Kate Barnosky hit a jumper with 30 seconds left. St. Thomas sophomore forward Taylor Young was fouled in the backcourt, but after making her first seven of the game, she missed both free throws to give Tufts a chance to win.
That’s when Ring stepped in front of sophomore forward Liz Moynihan’s pass with 18 seconds left and drove in for a layup attempt, getting fouled by freshman guard Kelsey Morehead. After the two made free throws, the Tommie defense harassed the Jumbos into a poor shot at the buzzer, sending St. Thomas into the Elite Eight against No. 5-ranked Calvin College. Calvin College defeated No. 2-ranked University of Chicago 68-50. The game will be at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 10.
Ring said she was in the right place at the right time to make the big steal.
“Coach just told me to deny (Morehead), and (Moynihan) threw her a bounce-pass and it was there for me,” Ring said.
Coach Ruth Sinn said the team’s resilience willed it to victory after blowing the big second half lead.
“We got too passive on the offense and too passive on the defense, but rather than just cracking and letting it go, we found a way to win,” Sinn said.
Senior Sarah Smith and Young led St. Thomas, winners of 29 straight, with 15 points each. Smith scored on a key putback with 55 seconds left to give the Tommies a 48-45 lead. Barnosky led Tufts with 11.
After sophomore center Maggie Weiers won the tipoff, both teams went scoreless until the 15:36 mark when Smith pinned her defender under the basket to make an easy shot. The Tommies went on a 6-0 run after Smith’s initial basket, with four more points coming from Smith and two from Ring.
Morehead nailed a 3-pointer at the 11:39 mark, giving the Jumbos their first points of the game after Tufts missed its first nine shots. Tufts then went on a 9-0 run with points coming from junior guard Collier Clegg, senior guard Tiffany Kornegay and junior guard Bre Dufault.
Smith ended the five-minute scoreless streak for the Tommies by completing an “old-fashioned” 3-point play; she made a layup and got fouled, sinking the free throw and giving her team a 12-9 lead. Smith carried the St. Thomas offense in the first half, leading both teams with 11 points.
Smith said she was able to make big offensive plays because her defenders simply left her open.
Both teams played hard-nosed defense throughout the half. Several turnovers and shot clock violations plagued the Tommies, making it difficult for them to string together long scoring runs.
Ring said she and her teammates knew it would be a defensive battle to advance to the Elite Eight.
“That’s what we prepared for all week,” Ring said. “They’re a big-time defensive team, and so are we.”
St. Thomas was able to gain a slight edge toward the end of the half thanks to senior forward Ali Johnson and sophomore guard Kelly Brandenburg. Both Johnson and Brandenburg were able to get to the free-throw line for the Tommies, going six-for-six and putting their team up 22-17. Moynihan cut the Tommies’ lead to two, hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to make it a 22-20 game.
Young leads strong second half start, Tommies fizzle late
Young found her stroke in the second half, scoring all of her points in the final twenty minutes. She scored off of jumpers and layups, but her biggest contribution came from the free-throw line.
‘It wasn’t shooting but getting fouled and going to the line that helped me,” Young said.
Sinn said the team needed to get Young more touches in order to get her going offensively.
“Taylor is a phenomenal player, and she just needed to get that swagger of hers going because there is not a player that can stay with her,” Sinn said.
The Tommies were up 42-28 with eight minutes left when the Jumbos went on a 13-2 run. Two back-to-back Morehead 3-pointers cut the St. Thomas lead to three points with four minutes remaining.
Smith then made her key putback with less than a minute left. Sinn described Smith as the team’s “pillar” player.
“She is the player that we know we can count on for the second-effort or the offensive board or the energy plays,” Sinn said. “She’s going to be there at the right time doing the right thing, and everyone builds off that.”
Ring’s steal and subsequent free throws went on to seal the game for the Tommies. Young said that Ring’s play was a testament to the team’s hard-nosed defense.
“When it mattered, we made defensive stops,” Young said.
With the Tommies advancing to the Elite Eight, Smith said she “couldn’t ask for anything better” than playing at this stage in the tournament with her team.
“I am so proud, and I am so glad to be here with these girls,” Smith said. “They’re my family, and I love them all.”
Hayley Schnell can be reached at email@example.com.