A few more people than usual got out of the cold and wandered into Henry Memorial Center Saturday afternoon to watch basketball.
Some came to see if the Washington & Jefferson College women’s basketball team could give head coach Jina DeRubbo her 300th career victory.
Others came just to see if W&J could beat Thomas More, the No. 9 ranked team in NCAA Division III.
Others came out of curiosity. Is Thomas More as good as its lofty ranking and 19-1 record suggested?
On this day, Thomas More more than lived up to its billing.
Thomas More used some torrid outside shooting and aggressive defense to overwhelm W&J, 77-53, in a Presidents’ Athletic Conference game.
The Saints, now 14-0 in the PAC and 20-1 overall, were much more impressive than they were Dec. 8, when they pulled out a 61-57 victory over the upset-minded Presidents in Crestview Hills, Ky.
“I guess we got their attention after that last one,” DeRubbo said. “They seemed more ready to play today. I wasn’t surprised.”
DeRubbo, however, was surprised that Thomas More delivered its knockout blow in the first half. Unlike the first meeting, which was a one-point game at halftime, the Saints came out playing at a high level. Thomas More went on an early 18-4 run to forge a 26-12 lead and the Presidents never recovered.
Thomas More senior point guard Alison Long dominated the first half, scoring 15 of her game-high 20 points, making five three-pointers and assisting on three baskets. If the Presidents sagged defensively against Long, she buried the three-pointer. When W&J played her aggressively, Long was able to drive through the defense.
“We came out and made some shots this time,” Thomas More second-year head coach Jeff Hans said. “Alison hit a bunch of threes, and that put W&J on their heels. Our motto is ‘Get Better Every Day,’ and I think we’re doing that.”
Thomas More , which made 11 three-pointers, led 8-3 before W&J guard Emily Abraham scored from behind the three-point line and forward Chelsea Apke made a shot from the side of the lane to tie it at 8-8.
But the game changed moments later, with Thomas More leading 10-8, when Apke drew her second foul less than four minutes into the game.
DeRubbo opted to take Apke, the Presidents’ leading scorer, out of the game to protect her from picking up a third foul before halftime.
“Chelsea needs to be smarter. She can’t pick up two fouls that early in the game,” DeRubbo said. “She’s a very good athlete, the best on our team. For us to compete against Thomas More, we need to have her on the floor.”
With Apke on the bench, W&J’s offense went cold and the Presidents couldn’t get out and contest the Saints’ perimeter shooters. Thomas More put together the 18-4 run, which included two three-pointers from both Long and Devin Beasley, over a six-minute stretch with Apke out of the game.
“Apke having two fouls early did not help W&J,” Hans said. “She’s a great player, who along with (Valerie) Dunlap creates a lot of mismatches for opponents inside.”
Even with Apke back on the floor, Thomas More was able to stretch its lead to 39-18 at halftime.
“The coaching staff said that we have to keep the game close early to set the tone for later,” DeRubbo said. “We told our players that Thomas More is a team that makes huge runs. In our conference, when Thomas More makes one of those runs, the game is over. The other team crumbles. They’re used to that. We said that we had to have enough composure to fight through something like that.”
The Presidents, however, simply didn’t have enough fight and offense to fuel a comeback. W&J, which shot 55 percent from the field in the first half of the December matchup with Thomas More, was held to 33 percent shooting for the game this time. And the Presidents had trouble with the Saints’ sticky full-court pressure defense, committing 22 turnovers.
“Thomas More’s guards are so athletic,” DeRubbo said. “They’re fast; they’re long. They shot the ball so well early, which took the wind out of our sails.”
Beasley came off the bench to score 17 points in 18 minutes, and Jenny Burgoyne had 13 for Thomas More, which hasn’t lost since Nov. 23, when it was defeated in overtime by 2nd-ranked Calvin (Mich.).
Dunlap paced W&J with 12 points and Abraham had 11.
The loss dropped W&J (14-7 overall) into a tie for third place with Waynesburg in the PAC at 9-5. The Presidents will try to get win No. 300 for DeRubbo Wednesday when they host Grove City.