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Barth scores 24 points, Thomas More posts 98-82 win over Olivet Nazarene in NAIA Tournament

By Don Owen
NKyTribune sports editor

According to the numbers, Olivet Nazarene’s chances of knocking off host Thomas More in the NAIA Tournament on Saturday night were less than 3 percent.

After all, Thomas More owned a 131-4 record inside the Connor Convocation Center during the past nine seasons. That’s a 97 percent winning percentage and includes six unbeaten seasons at home.

Zoie Barth scores a basket during the second half of Thomas More’s 98-82 win over Olivet Nazarene on Saturday night. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Throw in the fact Thomas More is ranked No. 1 nationally in the NAIA poll — along with the Saints’ 13-0 home record this season going into Saturday — and it’s easy to understand why Olivet Nazarene seemingly faced insurmountable odds.

Despite Olivet Nazarene’s deep bench, full-court pressure and quicker-than-lightning tempo, the percentages were right on target Saturday night. Thomas More built an early 14-point lead and coasted to a 98-82 win over Olivet Nazarene. The Saints (26-1) used pinpoint passing to beat the press and shot 50.8 percent from the field to extend their winning streak to 11 games.

Thomas More also snapped Olivet Nazarene’s 10-game winning streak and improved to 14-0 at home this season.

Zoie Barth — who was injured in a car accident earlier in the day but was cleared to play by the medical staff after a trip to the hospital — scored 24 points as Thomas More earned a trip to the round of 16 at the NAIA finals next week in Sioux City, Iowa. The 40th annual championship takes place at the Tyson Event Center from March 18-23.

Barth, a Highlands High School graduate, also dished out seven assists, grabbed six rebounds and collected two steals. This just a few hours after being involved in the accident.

“Just bruised ribs,” said Barth of her injury from earlier in the day. “I ended up going to the hospital in an ambulance.”

Thomas More head coach Jeff Hans said he didn’t think Barth would play after he received a phone call about the accident earlier in the day. “She wanted to be here with everybody and take her mind off it,” he said. “We knew she would be sore.”

Thomas More guard Courtney Hurst attempts to make an acrobatic save against Olivet Nazarene on Saturday night. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Barth not only played but led the Saints to the victory against a deep, talented squad from Olivet Nazarene.

“That’s Zoie. That’s our leader,” Hans said. “She’s the one we follow. The team was behind her, and as soon as I talked with Zoie and her mom and made sure everything was OK, my (response) was I’ll try and give you some breaks.”

Barth needed few breaks — even against the hectic style of Olivet Nazarene. The sophomore guard played 37 minutes and finished 9-for-15 from the field.

Thomas More buried five 3-pointers in the opening seven minutes to build a 19-5 lead. Courtney Hurst drained a trio of 3-pointers to ignite the Saints’ early-game spurt. Thomas More continued to execute against the all-out pressure defense and took a 50-36 advantage at intermission.

“I thought we have good guards, and they’re good enough to break the press,” Hans said. “It’s a different style of press than Campbellsville that we just faced last week. But Campbellsville’s pressure is for 40 minutes, just like Olivet’s. Our focus was to get good shots and we got off to the good start.”

The Saints knocked off an Olivet Nazarene team that had rolled to a 110-73 victory over Union (Ky.) just 24 hours earlier in the opening round of the NAIA Tournament. Thomas More received a first-round bye.

“Thomas More is an outstanding team and hit a lot of shots,” Olivet Nazarene head coach Lauren Glenn said. ”We expected them to be a really good 3-point shooting team. We needed to hit a few more and execute some of our stuff a little better. But I’m very proud of our girls and everything we accomplished and overcame this season.”

Alexah Chrisman of Thomas More powers inside for a basket against Olivet Nazarene. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Briana McNutt and Alexah Chrisman each added 18 points for Thomas More, which won the rebounding battle by a 41-40 margin. McNutt grabbed 10 rebounds, and Chrisman added nine boards.

Thomas More guard Taylor Clos finished with 14 points, while teammate Emily Simon scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Thomas More shot 13-for-30 from 3-point range.

Kennedy Johnson poured in a game-high 35 points for Olivet Nazarene, which finished the season with an 18-4 record. The Tigers had scored at least 100 points in five of their previous seven games and were unbeaten (9-0) on the road prior to Saturday night.

“I think everybody in the building was worn out after watching Olivet with the system and all they do,” Hans said. “The platoon, all the threes and all the transition. It’s tough to prepare for. They do a great job with it.

“We talked about not giving up threes. Making sure they were contested threes. I thought we did a pretty good job on the offensive boards, except for the third quarter. And we only had six turnovers in the second half. That was a key, and I’m proud of our effort against a very good team.”

Thomas More is seeking its fourth national championship in seven years. The Saints won back-to-back NCAA Division III national championships in 2015 and 2016. Thomas More added a third national crown in 2019 before transitioning to the NAIA last season.

“You expect (to challenge) because that’s where this program is,” Hans said when asked about being in the national finals in just the second season of competing in the NAIA and if he could have envisioned where his team is today. “Realistically, no. Two years in (the NAIA) and we’re able to win the (Mid-South Conference). We’re the No. 1 seed in the national tournament. I think it says a lot about the program and the players we have.”

The NAIA will re-seed the 16 remaining teams and announce the pairings for the national finals on Sunday.

Don Owen is sports editor of the Northern Kentucky Tribune. Contact him at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport.

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