By DOUG HENNES
After 17 lead changes and five ties, St. Thomas found itself locked into an intense 53-53 battle with Chicago Saturday night in the NCAA Division III playoffs, and there was little doubt to whom the Tommies would turn down the stretch.
Lucia Renikoff drove deep into the lane and dished the ball to All-America center Kaitlin Langer for an easy layup and a 55-53 lead. Langer went on to score six of her team's next nine points to cap an 11-3 run, and No. 2 St. Thomas held on to defeat the unranked Maroons 73-69.
The win before 500 fans in Schoenecker Arena moves the Tommies (29-0) into their fifth Sweet Sixteen berth in six years. They will have the opportunity Friday night to match the 2014-15 team for the best start in school history when they play Marymount (Va.), a 68-59 winner over Albright (Pa.). They will learn Sunday if they will be the host team.
Both coaches – Ruth Sinn of St. Thomas and Carissa Sain Knoche of Chicago – called the second-round matchup "a great game" characterized by outstanding defense.
"They did a lot of things that caused us to look hard at how to attack," Sinn said of the Maroons' pressure perimeter defense, which forced nine St. Thomas turnovers in the first half and denied Langer the ball inside until she broke loose in the fourth quarter for 10 of her 19 points.
"We were much more poised with the ball (in the fourth), cutting and getting open looks."
Two early deficits
Chicago scored the game's first five points but Renikoff answered with a 3-pointer, a layup and two free throws to give the Tommies a 16-11 lead. The game seesawed back and forth, with 12 lead changes until Chicago went on a 9-0 run early in the second quarter for a 31-23 lead.
St. Thomas closed the half with an 11-3 run and tied the game at 34-34 on guard Maddie Wolkow's 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer.
"We're usually the stronger team," Sinn said of the first half, "but they were just as strong as us. When we were driving the lane in the first half, we couldn't finish."
The Maroons scored nine of the first 10 points after the break to take another eight-point lead at 43-35, the biggest deficit the Tommies have faced in the second half this season. They answered with a 12-3 run to go ahead 47-46 on two Gabby Zehrer free throws, and Chicago hit a jumper for a 48-47 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Langer's layup with 4:43 left gave the Tommies the 55-53 lead that they would not relinquish. After a Wolkow steal, Renikoff drove into the lane, missed a shot, got her own rebound, made the shot and was fouled. She completed the three-point play for a 58-53 lead.
Renikoff called the sequence an "energy play" that sparked the St. Thomas defense. Chicago closed to 58-55 on two free throws, but Langer scored on the Tommies' next three possessions – a layup off a Wolkow feed, two free throws, and a layup after an offensive rebound – for a 64-55 lead with less than two minutes remaining.
Langer admitted that Chicago did a good job of handcuffing her in the first three quarters, when she made two of only four shots. But better penetration by St. Thomas guards in the final quarter created separation under the basket for her.
"It was just a little looser," she said, "and that's where those looks came from."
The Tommies iced the game at the free throw line, where they scored their last nine points. They made 12 of 14 free throws in the fourth quarter.
"We are a good free throw-shooting team," Sinn said of the Tommies, who are ranked No. 5 in Division III at 78 percent. "Kaitlin is usually the one who gets to the line, and it was nice to see the guards get there for us, too."
The Maroons cut the St. Thomas lead to 71-69 with 0.2 seconds left, and guard Paige Gernes sank two free throws to finish the scoring.
• Chicago outshot St. Thomas 49 percent to 37 percent and outrebounded the taller Tommies 36-35, but trailed 26-11 in free-throw scoring. After making 12 3-pointers in Friday night's win over UW-Superior, St. Thomas went 5 for 16 against Chicago, including 0 for 6 in the second half.
• With 19 points and 10 rebounds, Langer scored in double figures for the 42nd consecutive game and recorded the 26th double-double of her career. Renikoff had a career-high 17 points and Wolkow came off the bench for 12.
• A win in the Sweet Sixteen game would give the Tommies their third 30-win season in six seasons, the others coming in 2011-12 (31-2), when they finished third in the country, and in 2014-15 (30-1). During those six years, they are 166-18 (.902) overall and 27-5 (.844) in NCAA (15-5) and MIAC (12-0) playoff games.