SALEM, Va. (AP) — Surprisingly reserved and composed after winning the Division III men’s basketball national championship, Tyler Nicolai spoke for three teammate and his coach.
“I don’t really know what to say,” the senior said after leading St. Thomas to a 78-54 victory against Wooster and its first national championship — in its first try — Saturday.
“Maybe back in the locker room it will be a little different,” he said.
The Tommies (30-3) took command early, and decisively, using their pressing defense to catch the Fighting Scots off guard during a 34-5 run spanning 9 1/2 minutes of the first half.
John Nance scored 10 of his 16 points in the burst. In one stretch, the Tommies scored 17 points in a row, hitting six consecutive shots, including four 3-pointers, and forcing turnovers on five consecutive possessions in which the Fighting Scots never got off a shot.
“If we can’t lead with our pressure and our press, we get in trouble,” said Tommies coach Steve Fritz, who has been part of St. Thomas basketball since he played there from 1967-71.
“He’s a legend at the school, one of the best players ever to play here,” post player Tommy Hannon said, a piece of the net tucked behind his ear. “To be able to be a part of the team that brings him his first national championship is special and something we’ll cherish forever.”
Fritz, who won his 593rd game against 246 losses, paced the sidelines the entire game, his left arm in a sling. He had surgery to repair a torn biceps muscle on Monday.
“There’s no pain today,” he said, laughing, when asked about his arm. “Don’t worry.”
Hannon also scored 16 for the Tommies, who used the big run to go up 36-16 with 5:31 before halftime. They never let the margin below 10 again en route to their 12th victory in a row.
Ian Franks scored 22 points to lead Wooster (31-3), but the Fighting Scots couldn’t muster another dramatic rally. They came back from a 17-point deficit with a 27-8 run over the final 9 minutes in beating Middlebury on Friday night, but couldn’t repeat the surge in the final.
“Any time we scored it seemed like they would answer right back,” Franks said.
He was the only player to score in double figures for the Scots.
Alex Healy added 15 points and Tyler Nicolai had 11 for St. Thomas, which shot 54 percent.
After falling behind 46-26 in the opening seconds of the second half, Wooster got a 3-pointer from Nathan Balch and seven straight points by Franks to halve the deficit to 46-36.
But rather than crumble with the sizable Wooster crowd screaming and imploring the Fighting Scots to keep charging, St. Thomas collected itself and scored the next seven points. Healy scored on a drive, as did Teddy Archer, and Nicolai’s 3-pointer pushed the margin back to 17.
The key, Bryan Wickliffe said, was how effective the Tommies were with their pressure.
“They kind of turned it up on us a little bit and caught us by surprise,” he said.
A 6-0 run featuring a baby hook by Hannon and four free throws made it 63-43 with 7:39 left, and the Fighting Scots never mounted another threat in their first title game appearance.
“It’s a terrible feeling, a terrible feeling,” said Wickliffe, one of four seniors for Wooster. “I don’t have a chance to come out next year and try to get a championship. This was it.”
St. Thomas, of Minnesota, claimed the championship in its first title game appearance.
The Fighting Scots started fast, hitting five of their first seven shots and taking an 11-2 lead before the game changed completely. Hannon’s three-point play and layup got it started for the Tommies, and they outscored the Scots 34-5 over the next 9 1/2 minutes, hitting six 3s.
Wooster made only one field goal, a 3-pointer by Franks, during the drought, and while they were 8 for 10 from the foul line in the closing minutes, Franks’ 3 with 13:11 left in the half was their last basket of the half until he hit a tightly contested jumper at the buzzer.
St. Thomas Coach Steve Fritz on WCCO Radio with Sid Hartman
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