HOLLAND, Mich. — Senior guard Olivia Lett’s game-high 24 points sparked Illinois Wesleyan (27-5) to a 67-53 victory over the St. Thomas women’s basketball team Friday, March 16, in the NCAA semifinal game, giving the team its second loss of the season.
The Tommies led once the entire game. Right after the second half started, sophomore center Maggie Weiers made a layup to put her team up 27-26. Lett responded with a jumper, and that was the closest the Tommies would come to the Titans in the second half.
Coach Ruth Sinn said the beginning of the second half was the time where her team could have capitalized on controlling the tempo.
“There’s always a point in the game where you can see that the momentum is going to change,” Sinn said. “If we could have made a statement and controlled that time, who knows what would have happened.”
The Titans threw their full-court press on the Tommies from the start, causing St. Thomas to have a slow start and turn the ball over on several early possessions. Lett scored the first points of the game by nailing an open 3-pointer.
Sinn explained that her team was going to let Lett “have her points.”
“She is a great player,” Sinn said. “She finds multiple ways to score from the outside, she can take you up the middle and post up.’’
St. Thomas was able to fight back by adjusting to the full-court Titan pressure and converting on the offensive end. After being down 12-2 with 12 minutes left, the Tommie shooters began to heat up. Sophomore center Maggie Weiers and sophomore forward Taylor Young combined for 14 of the 25 first half points.
The momentum finally swung in the Tommies’ favor when senior forward Ali Johnson nailed a deep 3-pointer with 1:24 remaining in the first half. Her shot cut the Titans’ lead to just one, where it stayed for the rest of the half.
The Titans controlled the second half from start to finish. After Weiers hit the opening shot, they went on a 10-0 run to open the half. Young was able to end the run by hitting a jumper, but the Tommies were unable to break more than an eight-point deficit.
The Illinois Wesleyan pressure was a force the entire game. It forced 24 Tommie turnovers and held them to just 53 points, far below their season average.
Sinn said that while there were moments where the team showed poise in handling the press, it “broke down” too many times.
“When you get to postseason, it’s all about possessions,” Sinn said. “We threw too many possessions away.”
From the seven minute mark on, the Titans held a double-digit lead over the Tommies. St. Thomas had to force several shots over feisty Titan defenders, while Illinois Wesleyan players were able to hit open layups and 3-pointers.
Young said even though the team knew it was going to be a physical battle, it is hard to mentally overcome a big deficit while dealing with constant pressure.
Weiers said the Titan players were “pressuring all over.”
“They had people crashing inside and were strong under the basket,” Weiers said.
The Titans’ biggest lead of the game was 15. According to Sinn, whose team has not lost a game since Nov. 16, 2011, the loss is heartbreaking.
“When you put your whole heart into something, it hurts,” Sinn said.
St. Thomas will face Amherst College in the consolation game at 4 p.m. on Saturday. Amherst, the defending national champion, was previously undefeated before losing earlier Friday to George Fox University (32-0).
Sinn said her team is going to learn from the tough loss, and it will look to make a statement against Amherst.
“These two young ladies right next to me (Young and Weiers) are going to be amazing and they’re going to remember this,” Sinn said. “They’re going to use this to empower them even more.”
Hayley Schnell can be reached at email@example.com.