Abby Owings has to think a minute when asked the last time she played in a losing basketball game.
“It was in high school, the finals, the (8th) Region finals,” the former Simon Kenton standout says. “We lost to Anderson County.”
When you consider that Owings has now played in 60 college basketball games for Thomas More College, you get an idea of the extraordinary run the Saints women’s basketball program is on.
The numbers are insane.
When Thomas More (27-0) begins defense of its 2015 women’s Division III national championship Friday night against La Roche College (24-3) in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, the Saints will carry a 60-game winning streak.
Since Sydney Moss, Kentucky’s 2012 Miss Basketball at Boone County, shocked the basketball world by transferring from Florida of the SEC to Thomas More of the D-III, the Saints are 91-1 — and the loss came after Moss tore her ACL in the first half of a 2014 NCAA tourney game.
Since Jeff Hans, the ex-Lexington Catholic girls’ hoops coach, became Thomas More head man five seasons ago, the Saints are 143-8.
91-1 Thomas More’s record since Sydney Moss’s arrival
This season, no opponent has played the Saints within single digits. Only four teams have stayed within 20 points.
“We don’t talk about any of that stuff,” Hans says of winning streaks and repeats. “We just want to play.”
This is the backstory on one of the stellar runs in Kentucky college basketball history.
The star player
As a freshman at Florida in 2012-13, Moss was a blossoming star. The 5-foot-10 guard was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team after averaging 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists.
Yet Moss was not happy in Gainesville. She says she underestimated how much she would miss her family when she chose to go to college so far from home.
“My grandpa, who I was really close to, he ended up getting sick and passing away like a week before Thanksgiving,” Moss said. “So me coming back up here and coming to his funeral and seeing my family was really hard. And then leaving to go back down there to school was very, very hard.”
After her freshman year, Moss told Florida Coach Amanda Butler she wanted to transfer to be closer to family.
“(Butler) said send me a list, give the athletics director a list, and we’ll release you to those schools,” Moss said. “So I gave them a list. I had West Virginia University in there, Louisville, UC (Cincinnati), Xavier, you know, all the local schools. I put Kentucky in there just because I was familiar with some of the girls who went there and the head coach.”
We’ve done this mostly with players from our backyard. I think that makes it a little more special.
Jeff Hans, Thomas More coach
Moss says her understanding is Florida refused to release her to go to SEC rival UK.
“That’s when I was kind of fed up with the whole Division I thing, having to be released and sit out a year (as a transfer),” she said. “That was when I decided ‘Hey, I might want to go to a smaller school.’”
With an undergraduate enrollment of around 1,000, Thomas More qualified as a small school. Moss says she chose TMC because it was close to her Boone County home, she knew several of the players on the team and she could play immediately without sitting out after transferring.
For a school playing non-scholarship basketball to get a budding SEC standout “was like hitting the lottery,” Hans says. “We hit the lottery with Sydney.”
At Thomas More, Moss has done the kind of exceptional things one would expect of a D-I talent in D-III basketball.
As a sophomore, she scored 63 points in one game. Last year as a junior, she had a triple-double, 19 points, 16 rebounds, 11 assists, in the national championship game — while playing with torn cartilage in her “good knee.”
This season, Moss is scoring less (22 points a game, down from 24.2 last year) but distributing more (5.6 assists, up from four).
“You know that (saying), a rising tide lifts all ships?” asks Thomas More President David A. Armstong. “Sydney was a huge tide for us.”
In 2006, at the ripe old age of 28, Jeff Hans stepped into one of the more pressure-packed coaching jobs in Kentucky. He became head girls’ basketball coach at Lexington Catholic at a time when the school had just won back-to-back girls’ Sweet Sixteen championships.
Hans laughs now when asked if he felt more pressure taking over at Catholic then or entering the NCAA Tournament with a 60-game winning streak now at Thomas More.
“That’s a good question,” he says. “I don’t know.”
Jeff Hans coached Lexington Catholic to two 11th Region championship games before leaving for Thomas More
Hans stayed at LexCath two seasons. The reason he left, he says, was not because the Knights lost in back-to-back 11th Region finals. It was because Hans was commuting to Lexington from northern Kentucky where his wife had a job she did not want to leave. After the couple had a second child, Hans felt he needed less time on the road and more time for his family.
“Catholic was a great experience. I loved it down there,” Hans said. “I wish I was still there in some ways. If my (family) situation had been different, I thought that was a place I could see myself staying a long time.”
At Thomas More, Hans has built his program around local players. In Moss, point guard Owings and sophomore forward Nikki Kiernan (Newport Catholic), the Saints start three northern Kentucky products. The other two starters, senior forward Alexa Santamaria and freshman guard Madison Temple, are from Cincinnati.
“We’ve done this mostly with players from our backyard,” Hans said. “I think that makes it a little more special.”
There is no way to quantify the public relations benefits Thomas More has reaped since its women’s basketball team claimed the first NCAA team championship in school history last spring, says Armstrong, the school president.
The New York Times, after all, doesn’t typically write a lot of stories about TMC athletes. It did do one, last March, about Moss.
(Moss told the Times she hoped that once she had led Thomas More to an NCAA title, she would have her own identity and the media would not always refer to her as the daughter of ex-NFL star Randy Moss.)
“I think our website went from five-digit hits to over a million hits one month,” Armstrong said. “We’ve gotten so much national coverage and even global coverage. You can’t put a price tag on that.”
Starting with Friday night’s NCAA Tournament meeting with La Roche, the Saints are six wins from a second straight, unbeaten national championship.
There are not a lot of people walking the planet who can say they’ve ever been a part of something like that.
“We don’t think about it as pressure,” says senior guard Olivia Huber. “We just go out there and have fun with each other, do everything for each other. That helps us not feel the pressure as much.”
La Roche at Thomas More
What: Women’s Division III NCAA Tournament first-round game
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Crestview Hills, Ky.
Records: Thomas More 27-0, La Roche 24-3