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College women's basketball: 'Jackets run into St. Thomas buzz saw

ST. PAUL -- The Wisconsin-Superior women's basketball team made a calculated decision on Friday not to allow Kaitlin Langer, St. Thomas' 6-foot-3 All-American center, to beat them inside, forcing the Tommies to make 20-footers instead of 2-footers.

Photo courtesy of St. Thomas Wisconsin-Superior's Hailey Kontny drives upcourt against St. Thomas defenders Friday night in St. Paul. The unbeaten Tommies ended the Yellowjackets' season 98-56 in an NCAA Division III first-round game.
Photo courtesy of St. Thomas Wisconsin-Superior's Hailey Kontny drives upcourt against St. Thomas defenders Friday night in St. Paul. The unbeaten Tommies ended the Yellowjackets' season 98-56 in an NCAA Division III first-round game.

ST. PAUL - The Wisconsin-Superior women's basketball team made a calculated decision on Friday not to allow Kaitlin Langer, St. Thomas' 6-foot-3 All-American center, to beat them inside, forcing the Tommies to make 20-footers instead of 2-footers.

There was only one problem: St. Thomas makes 3-pointers like they're layups.

St. Thomas shot 60 percent for the game, including 12-for-24 from 3-point range, to beat the Yellowjackets 98-56 in the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament before 730 at Schoenecker Arena.

Junior forward Lauren Fischer had 23 points to lead the third-ranked Tommies (28-0), making a school-record seven 3-pointers on 7-for-9 shooting from beyond the arc. Gabby Zehrer added 14 points while Langer had 13 points.

"We did what we thought gave us the best chance of winning," UWS coach Don Mulhern said. "We did a great job on Langer. We made the calculated decision to not let Langer beat us. We played her really well, but St. Thomas is really good, and they went to their next alternative, and that's kicking it out. And we knew they would, but that's the chance you take."

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UWS (23-5), which was led by Hannah Norlin (18 points) and Bailee Bartunek (11 points), didn't look like its normal self in the first half. A lot of that had to do with St. Thomas, but part of it had to do with the elements. St. Thomas is playoff tested, having won the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament six straight years.

UWS was playing in its second straight NCAA tournament after making its first appearance last year, but the Yellowjackets have no seniors. They threw balls away, had traveling calls and balls bounce off their feet and out of bounds, some unforced errors that weren't all the product of St. Thomas.

UWS had four turnovers in cruising past Minnesota-Morris 72-46 in the UMAC tournament championship last week in Superior. On Friday, the Yellowjackets had 26.

Leading 23-10 after the first quarter, St. Thomas put on a shooting display to outscore UWS 27-3 in the second quarter to put the game away.

"A lot of us had a little bit of nerves," said UWS junior guard Hailey Kontny, who had eight points on 3-for-10 shooting. "We picked it up a little bit in that second half. We worked together and just played for each other. We love each other and we're one big family, so we knew it'd be a fun game in the end."

To the Yellowjackets' credit, they played even with the Tommies in the second half.

"We talked to them at halftime about showing our character and showing the fans what we've done all year, and we came out in the second half and did that," Mulhern said. "I have a group of players who are really special, and they showed that. I'm really proud of them. But sometimes you just run into a team that is hotter than heck."

St. Thomas features nine 6-footers on its roster, crazy for Division III, but Norlin said she adjusted in a hurry. She had all 18 of her points in the second half.

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"It's definitely different going against that height," Norlin said. "We're not used to it, but once you get into it, you're fine. I got blocked the first time, and I was like, all right, I'm like, 'OK, her hands there. So I'm going to look for it next time.' You get used to it."

That drew a good laugh from herself and Kontny.

"I don't think my second half had anything to do with what coach said. I have personal determination," Norlin added. "We weren't playing to our potential. That was obvious. We have a lot of young players who were nervous, and that was understandable, but something had to be done. So we got after it. We had nothing to do lose. They were the ones who had something to lose, so why not?"

Bartunek will graduate a year early but everyone else is expected back for the Yellowjackets, so these teams could see each other next year as well. St. Thomas plays the University of Chicago, a 67-63 winner over Wartburg College, back on its home court tonight in the second round. Tommies coach Ruth Sinn said the Yellowjackets weren't out of their league on Friday.

"Superior did what they could to try to match up with us," Sinn said. "But you've got to give Superior a lot of credit. They had a great season, and Don is just a great coach. He gets a lot out of those kids. We said at halftime, because we had watched a lot of tape, that there would be no quit in this team. It is a team that is going to fight and fight.

"We watched them against Minnesota Duluth. We watched them against St. Kate's. And we knew it. We knew in the third quarter they were going to come back, and they certainly did. I give them a lot of credit. They've got a nice team, and a lot to build on."

WISCONSIN-SUPERIOR (56) - Bailee Bartunek 5-10 0-0 11, Justine Larson 1-7 1-4 4, Hannah Norlin 8-15 2-5 18, Amelia Leger 0-4 0-2 0, Hailey Kontny 3-10 2-4 8, Etta Sorenson 1-1 0-0 2, Morgan Nepstad 1-1 2-2 2, Megan Aho 2-3 0-0 6, Brittany Laehn 0-2 0-0 0, Emily Carpenter 1-1 0-0 3, Eva Reinertsen 0-1 0-0 0. Jade Tucker 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 23-58 7-17 56.
ST. THOMAS (56) - Lauren Fischer 8-11 0-0 23, Kaitlin Langer 5-9 3-3 13, Lucia Renikoff 4-6 1-2 11, Paige Gernes 2-3 0-0 5, Gabby Zehrer 4-8 5-5 14, Maddie Wolkow 3-7 0-0 7, Janelle Alba-Garner 2-3 0-0 4, Kaylie Brazil 1-3 0-0 2, Sarah Krynski 0-1 2-4 2, McKenna DuBois 1-2 0-0 2, Elsa Anderson 2-2 0-0 4, MacKenzie Denk 0-1 0-0 0, Hannah Spaulding 4-4 3-3 11. Totals 36-60 14-17 98.
Halftime - St. Thomas 50, UWS 13. 3-point goals - UWS 3-10 (Bartunek 1-1, Larson 1-2, Leger 0-1, Kontny 0-2, Laehn 0-2, Carpenter 1-1, Reinertsen 0-1), St. Thomas 12-24 (Fischer 7-9, Renikoff 2-3, Gernes 1-1, Zehrer 1-4, Wolkow 1-4, Brazil 0-2, DuBois 0-1). Rebounds - UWS 35 (Bartunek, Larson 6), St. Thomas 30 (Langer, Zehrer 4). Assists - UWS 8 (Larson 4), St. Thomas 22 (Gernes 4). Turnovers - UWS 26 (Larson 7), St. Thomas 16 (Fischer 4). Fouls - UWS 18, St. Thomas 17. Fouled out - None. Attendance - 730.

Related Topics: COLLEGE BASKETBALL
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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