Crestview Hills, Ky. – An unprecedented run for the No. 18 Transylvania women's basketball team ended on Friday evening in the Sweet 16 round of the Division III NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament as the Pioneers fell to the No. 1 Thomas More University Saints, 89-74 at the Connor Convocation Center.
A phenomenal season for Transylvania which saw the Pioneers soar higher than ever before with its first foray in program history into the NCAA sectional round, met the dominant pedigree of the undefeated Thomas More Saints, who advanced to their fourth-consecutive Elite 8 while sharpening their record to 30-0.
Friday's loss snapped Transylvania's decade-best 21-game win streak as the Pioneers signed off on a 27-3 season for the 2018-19 campaign.
The Pioneers manifested an inspiring attack against the nationally-regarded Saints, who entered the night ranked second in the nation in field-goal percentage to go with their undefeated record. Senior guard Celia Kline countered an opening bucket from Thomas More with the first of her four 3-pointers on the evening to finish with 22 points in her final game, signaling a signature Pioneer offensive attack.
The Saints used their size and midrange game to open up a 22-13 lead after the first quarter. Thomas More displayed its might following the opening tip with a 10-3 surge before Kline scored a pair of buckets to ignite a response for the Pioneers, closing in on the Saints at 14-12. The Saints took advantage of an inordinate rate of turnovers by Transylvania to finish the first quarter on a poignant 8-1 run to create their first scoring distance of the night.
In the second quarter, the Pioneers continued to pry away at the Saints' defensive orchestration, creating good looks at times while also struggling to deliver pinpoint passes. The Saints used an effective transition game to open up their lead to 42-26 by halftime.
The Pioneers' aspirations of closing the gap in the first half were hindered by a 2-for-11 showing from three-point range, but the home team also struggled in the three-point department with an 0-for-6 display from behind the arc over the first 20 minutes. As the Pioneers continued to get settled against the conditions, junior guard Ashton Woodard paced the way with eight points in a slow second quarter for Transylvania.
Out of halftime, the third period provided the highest-scoring quarter for both teams. Kline hit a triple at the 7:43 mark to slice Thomas More's lead back down to 16 at 50-34, but the Saints began to discover their three-point shot, hitting on 3-of-4 tries from outside to outscore Transy 26-25 for the quarter. Woodard had another pivotal quarter with nine points on 4-for-5 shooting on the way to a game-high 25 points.
Trailing 68-51 entering the fourth quarter, the Pioneers mounted a final rally that inspired the crimson side of the capacity crowd at Connor Convocation Center. Sophomore guard Zenoviah Walker sparked the Pioneers with a lightning-fast drive and senior guard Kristen Hayes followed with a 2-for-2 trip to the free-throw line to cut Thomas More's advantage to 70-55.
With 7:44 remaining, Hayes drained a three-pointer to thin the margin to 12 points with plenty of time to go. But the Saints swung back with another timely 3-pointer to stretch the lead to 15 points and quell a potential further run from the Pioneers. Thomas More finished the second half 5-for-10 from three-point land after failing to connect in the first half.
The Pioneers remained undeterred and received big buckets down the stretch from sophomore forward Calynn Jackson and Woodard, once again cutting Thomas More's advantage to 75-64 with a sliver under four minutes to go in regulation. Woodard remained hot as she canned another jumper to carve Thomas More's lead to nine points with 3:28 to go while the Pioneers' press came alive in the final quarter.
The Saints delivered the final piece of insurance as Thomas More guard Asyah Mitchell hit the last triple of the game for the home team to raise the lead back to 12 and force the Pios into a fouling pattern.
Junior guard Shelby Boyle hit a straightaway three-pointer with 61 seconds left to make it a single-digit margin for the final time in the evening before Thomas More hit four free throws and a shot-clock beating field goal in the final minute to win by 15.
Woodard's career-night saw the guard shoot 11-for-15 from the floor in total with three rebounds, one assist, and one steal in a team-high 37 minutes of play. Kline also enjoyed an efficient shooting night in her final collegiate performance, shooting 9-for-14 overall while adding three rebounds. Boyle had another signature all-around game with seven points, nine rebounds, five assists, four steals, and one block. Hayes finished the night with 10 points as she attacked the rim to the tune of a 7-for-8 showing from the charity stripe.
Transylvania struggled in its usual area of strength in the outside shot, shooting 8-for-26 from three-point range for 31 percent while going 14-for-21 from the free-throw line. The Saints were nearly perfect from the foul line, only missing two of their 26 attempts on the evening. Thomas More shot 52 percent from the floor on Friday compared to 43 percent by the Pioneers, whose offense improved as the game grew longer.
Despite Thomas More's size advantages at nearly every position, the Pioneers won the battle of the boards, snagging 33 rebounds to Thomas More's 32, and 15 rebounds on the offensive glass.
Transylvania's magnificent postseason run culminated the careers of five seniors in Kline, Hayes, guard Macey Ford, guard Taylor Jackson, and forward Kerigan Davis, foundational players who finished third in the HCAC as freshmen, finished second in conference in back-to-back years as sophomores and juniors, and won the conference title as seniors, eventually pushing the Pioneers to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.
The 2018-19 season also marked the deepest run in NCAA postseason play for fifth-year head coach Juli Fulks, who guided the Pioneers to their second NCAA Tournament since her arrival in 2014.
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