By DOUG HENNES
The Tommies truly owned the moment on Sunday.
That is the slogan – "Own the moment" – for the St. Thomas women's basketball team this season, and coach Ruth Sinn thought the Tommies lived up to it better than ever in their 66-49 win over Gustavus Adolphus in the MIAC playoff championship game.
No. 2-ranked St. Thomas (27-0) used a 30-point first quarter to bolt to a 14-point lead and survived a third-quarter Gustavus rally to earn an automatic berth into the NCAA Division III tournament.
The Tommies expect to host a first-round game on Friday and will learn their opponent on Monday. The Gusties appear to be a lock to qualify.
"I was so excited by the first quarter because of how locked in our players were," said Sinn, whose team has won six straight MIAC playoff championships – a longer streak than any men's or women's team in conference history. "When you get to this point of the season, you prepare players to get excited about those big opportunities and to own the moment. We sure did today."
All-American center Kaitlin Langer had another huge performance against No. 13-ranked Gustavus (25-2), scoring 29 points on 10 of 12 shooting from the field and 9 of 12 free throws and hauling down a game-high nine rebounds. Her numbers were just shy of a career-high 32 points, plus 10 rebounds, against the Gusties earlier this month in a 75-69 win in St. Peter.
"We were so focused," Langer said, "and we were really prepared. We knew we had to go inside first and then kick it back out, and we had to have lockdown D. It all came together today."
Sinn paused when asked if this was the best quarter the Tommies have played in her 12 years as coach. When reminded of the score (30-16), shooting (11 of 13 for 84.6 percent, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range) and tough defense against the third-best shooting team in Division III, Sinn nodded. "Best quarter," she said.
Langer and sophomore guard Lucia Renikoff fueled the early surge, each scoring 10 points in the quarter. Both players had layups and Renikoff hit two free throws for a 6-0 lead. Gustavus hung close by hitting four 3-pointers but still trailed 30-16 at the break.
The Tommies came back to earth in the second quarter, scoring only nine points on 3 of 9 shooting and committing eight turnovers in a seven-minute stretch. Gustavus closed to within nine points, at 39-30, at halftime.
"The turnovers were our biggest downfall," Renikoff said. "We got a little sloppy with our passing. We were trying to find Kaitlin too much inside. We made some adjustments at halftime and played better."
Sinn credited Gustavus for tightening its interior defense. "We were forcing the ball into Kaitlin instead of going to our next option," she said. "We just got out of rhythm."
Gustavus opened the second half with a 7-2 run and twice trailed by only four before St. Thomas scored the last five points of the third quarter to maintain a nine-point lead. The Tommies quickly pushed the lead into double figures and Gustavus went cold from the field, going nearly seven minutes in the quarter without a field goal.
• The Tommies have won 34 games in a row over MIAC opponents and 14 straight games over Gustavus, last losing in 2010. The 27-0 St. Thomas record matches the second-best start in program history, behind only the 30-0 start two years ago.
• St. Thomas has swept the MIAC regular-season and playoff titles the last three years. In the 17-year history of the playoffs, the Tommies have seven titles, all in the last eight years. Previous title wins came over St. Benedict (2010), Gustavus (2012), Concordia (2013), St. Mary's (2014, 2016) and Bethel (2015). The only loss in the eight years was to Concordia in the 2011 championship game.
• During the string of six playoff titles, Sinn's teams have a 164-18 (.901) record and this year's senior class has an even better record (108-10, or .915) over the last four years. The Tommies are 269-75 (.782) in Sinn's 12 years as coach.
• This will be St. Thomas' 23rd appearance in an NCAA tournament in 33 seasons, with a record of 43-22. The Tommies won the national title in 1991 under coach Ted Riverso and All-American center Laurie Trow Kelly, who has coached Gustavus the last five seasons, and have finished third four times.