An athlete without a sport hooks up with hoops. Who knew a championship would follow?
The St. Thomas women's basketball team was winding up the regular season at Schoenecker Arena on Saturday afternoon. Tradition called for this to be the Tommies' senior day, although there would be no reason for such a ceremony if Carrie Embree had not prolonged her college days in order to play a season of basketball.
Embree came from a farm near Waukee, Iowa, to St. Thomas in the fall of 2003 to pursue an education degree and to play softball in coach John Tschida's powerful program.
The Tommies won Division III national championships in her freshman and sophomore seasons. They had a 98-2 record against MIAC opponents in winning four consecutive league titles.
Embree moved around the diamond, mostly playing left field. She set an MIAC record with 109 stolen bases and was third all-time with 218 hits.
She also was a two-time academic All-America. When her softball eligibility was finished last spring, she still needed a class or two and a semester of student teaching to get her degree.
"It would've been tough for me to be back in school without being in a sport," Embree said. "I played four sports in high school: cross-country, basketball, track and softball. I've always had sports."
Embree attended numerous St. Thomas basketball games during her time on campus. "Watching the team last winter was giving me the urge to play again," she said.
Embree approached coach Ruth Sinn and asked about joining the Tommies for the 2007-08 season.
"She took a few days to check on some things and then said, 'I think this could work out,' " Embree said.
There would not have been a senior for the Tommies to honor Saturday if Sinn had a different message, and there would not have been nearly as much at stake in this MIAC finale with St. Benedict.
Coach Mike Durbin's club already had guaranteed itself a first-place tie and the No. 1 seed in the MIAC playoffs. The Blazers wanted more, though. They wanted to stretch winning runs that stood at nine in a row and 17 of 18, and also to win the title outright for a third consecutive season.
This was such a special occasion -- what with Embree getting special attention from the crowd before the game -- that her father, Don, did not go with his usual wardrobe choice.
"Yeah, he left the bibs [overalls] behind today," Carrie said. "That was kind of a surprise."
Don's slacks and shirt were not the only surprise offered on this afternoon.
St. Benedict had spent enough time at the line (12-for-18) to survive 23 percent shooting and squeeze out a 25-21 halftime lead.
The offense started to function in the second half, the Tommies were throwing bricks, and St. Benedict built a 48-32 lead.
It was 48-35 with 6:37 left when Sinn decided her team needed to get back to Plan A: jam the ball inside to Embree and hope she could use the strength in her 5-11 frame to muscle past the taller Blazers.
The tallest of these is Danielle Frank, a 6-4 freshman from Caledonia. She's a shot swatter more than a blocker.
There was a play late in the first half when Embree waved for the ball, went strong, gave a fake but couldn't get Frank to leave her feet. Shot ... swat!
"I knew it was going to get blocked," Embree said.
Yet, the Tommies' only chance with the deficit at 13 and time a wastin' was to go back to Embree and see what happened.
Sure enough, Embree hit a short jumper, was fouled and made the free throw. She was hacked and made two free throws.
The Blazers started to show nerves. They made sloppy passes. Mindy Schmit, 83-for-94 on free throws entering the game, missed two. And the Tommies forced overtime at 52-52 on Jessica Katch's jump shot.
Judy Falvey's three in overtime produced the Blazers' only points in the game's final 9:42. Another Katch jumper won it 56-55 for the Tommies.
Any softball comebacks to match this? "Getting a bunch of runs with two outs in the seventh -- something like that?" Embree said. "I can't remember that."
Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • firstname.lastname@example.org