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Don Owen: Unfazed by challenging schedule, unbeaten Thomas More women aim for NCAA title

One minute they’re on a flight to the state of Washington. Next is a long bus ride to Michigan. A few days later, they’re in Florida. Oh, and they do actually play a home game or two before jumping on the next jet to Texas.

No, it’s not the Harlem Globetrotters. And, guess again, because it’s not an NBA team. It’s actually the women’s basketball team at Thomas More University — unbeaten at 22-0 and ranked No. 2 nationally in the NCAA Division III poll.

How’d you like to go from Walla Walla, Washington, one weekend to Holland, Michigan, the next? Not to mention a trip to Florida four days later. That’s six games in 12 days. And they’re college kids, not professionals.

Thomas More women’s basketball head coach Jeff Hans has guided his team to a 22-0 record this season and a No. 2 national ranking. (Photo courtesy of Thomas More)

Despite all the travel and the challenges of being an NCAA Division III independent this season, Thomas More continues to win. They’ve beaten seven nationally ranked Division III teams, knocked off a pair of solid NAIA squads — including No. 18 Lindsey Wilson by 34 points — and did it while squeezing 22 games into a season that’s barely into the second week of January.

How impressive is the 22-0 start for the Saints? Just listen to Thomas More athletic director Terry Connor, who’s been around college sports for a long time as a player, coach and administrator.

“I have no idea how they’ve done this,” Connor said, noting the women’s basketball team’s hectic travel schedule, the lack of home games and the rugged competition. “To say it’s special doesn’t do it justice. They played in three time zones in about 11 or 12 days. To excel at their academics and continue to play at this level is beyond anything I’ve seen. And no one goes up to Hope College and wins by 20 points (81-61 final score). But they did.

“I have absolutely no words to describe this. Our women are playing high-caliber teams and winning on the road. What they have accomplished so far is amazing. I would like someone to show me another team that has ever done something like it, and I don’t care what level you’re talking about. It’s a tribute to (head coach) Jeff Hans and his players.”

Hans is no stranger to winning. He’s done it locally for years as an assistant at both Northern Kentucky University and Wilmington College, and now as the head coach at Thomas More. Hans also led Thomas More to two straight NCAA Division III national championships — one title was later vacated after an eligibility problem was discovered months after the fact — and an actual 229-11 record in eight years as the Saints mentor. (The NCAA officially recognizes 196 of those victories due to Thomas More vacating its 33 wins in 2014-15)

He’s attempting to win it all once again in Thomas More’s final season of competition at the NCAA Division III level. Next year, the Saints will transition to the NAIA and compete in the Mid-South Conference. Yes, Thomas More will actually have a normal schedule in 2019-20 — the complete opposite of this season.

Thomas More senior guard Madison Temple averages 24.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. She is also a leading candidate for Division III National Player of the Year. (Photo by Allen Ramsey)

“Getting this type of schedule together was difficult, but we wanted to put ourselves in position to participate in the NCAA Tournament and play as many Division III opponents as possible,” said Hans, who has twice been named Division III National Coach of the Year. “Our players have handled it well. Playing so many games in a short amount of time, with most of them on the road, you find out a lot about yourself.

“You learn how you handle adversity, and how you react to all the distractions with so much travel. But you also create great chemistry and a bond with your teammates. This has been very special to watch. And playing so many great teams will definitely toughen you up for the postseason.”

Under Hans, Thomas More totally dominated its former league, the Presidents’ Athletic Conference. Want proof? Dating back to 2012, the Thomas More women posted 135 consecutive victories against PAC opponents on the court. The Saints, in fact, won 11 straight conference championships.

Last season, in their final campaign in the PAC, the Saints won conference games by an average score of 90-47. Preparing for the NCAA Division III Tournament, Thomas More might have preferred more competition than the PAC offered. If a team is winning its conference games by an average of 43 points, it isn’t being adequately challenged.

Not so this season, as Thomas More has already played seven nationally ranked NCAA Division III teams — all on the road or neutral courts.

“We’ve seen so many different styles of play this season from good teams, night after night, that it’s going to help us in the postseason,” Hans noted. “We haven’t been able to practice much at all with so many games. We’ve had seven or eight practices since Nov. 30 due to the way the travel happens.

“But that will prepare us in the postseason, because you have a short turnaround and not a lot of time to prepare for your next opponent.”

Thomas More’s Emily Schultz (31) is a key inside player who helped the Saints win the regional championship last season. (Photo by Allen Ramsey)

Thomas More has fashioned the impressive record this season with four new starters joining standout senior guard Madison Temple in the lineup. Temple averages 24.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. She is also a leading candidate for Division III National Player of the Year, but Hans admitted the 22-0 record is a pleasant surprise.

“I think right now we’ve overachieved when you look at the schedule we’ve played,” he said. “We have a very special player in Madison Temple and a lot of good pieces around her. But I never thought we would be 22-0 after losing Abby Owings and Nikki Kiernan from last season.”

One of the key Thomas More players is junior forward Emily Schultz, who averages 10.6 points per game and is shooting 64.1 percent from the field. Another standout inside performer is senior forward Shelby Rupp, who is scoring 11.6 points and grabs 6.8 rebounds per contest.

“We have some excellent players who have stepped up, and their competitive nature carries over into games,” Hans said. “You always lose good players in college basketball, but this group is very special and has really met the challenges.”

Connor isn’t surprised by the success — just how they’ve done it under the challenging conditions this season.

“We pride ourselves on building and maintaining programs, not teams,” Connor said of Thomas More’s philosophy. “When we lost (Division III National Player of the Year) Sydney Moss, everyone said that’s it for the women’s basketball program. Guess what? They kept winning. We lost Abby Owings from last season and everyone said that’s it. And we still keep winning. It will be the same thing next season because we lose Madison Temple from this team. But it’s about programs, not teams.

“What I’ve noticed about this particular team is, the girls really enjoy each other. They’re always laughing and smiling. Jeff is very intense, but he also creates a great atmosphere for them. They execute so well, and that’s all due to Jeff’s teaching and knowledge of the game.”

Said Hans: “You recruit talented players to stay home, play in front of their friends and family, and hopefully they buy into our system. We’ve created that winning culture by sharing the ball and not turning it over. And it’s an entire team effort. When we won the national championship, it wasn’t just Sydney, and she will tell you that. It was the entire team that made it happen.

“It’s the same with Madison this season. She’s a great player, but it’s the other players who also make you very successful and ready to compete for championships.”

Challenging schedules — and lots of frequent flyer miles — also prepare basketball teams for championship runs. So don’t be surprised if the players and coaches at Thomas More are again cutting down the nets this March in their final season of competing at the NCAA Division III level.

Thomas More players celebrate after winning the regional championship last season at Holland, Mich. The Saints also advanced to the NCAA Division III Final Four. (Photo by Allen Ramsey)

Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

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