Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It’s been quite a winter over at the St. Thomas campus in St. Paul.
Under the direction of new head coach John Tauer, the Tommies men’s basketball team won the MIAC regular season title with a 16-4 record. St. Thomas earned the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs with a 66-62 win over Gustavus in the MIAC championship game.
This all comes a season after Steve Fritz led St. Thomas to its first national title. Fritz retired after last season, allowing Tauer to step forward as the team’s interim head coach. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
What’s impressive about the Tommies run this year is they won a regular season and playoff title largely without their best player. Tommy Hannon has missed 16 games with a knee injury and won’t be back for the postseason. He was a post player, led the team in scoring and rebounding and was their go-to guy.
Despite his absence, St. Thomas has maintained its success on the court. Tauer said the team’s depth has been a key.
“It’s been an interesting year,” Tauer said. “It took us a little bit of time to adjust, but it’s not about just replacing one guy. Everybody has picked it up a little bit more and we’ve prided ourselves on depth.”
Freshman Connor Nord replaced Hannon in the lineup and is averaging 7.0 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. Will DeBerg leads the team in scoring at just under 13 points per game. John Nance, who has started every game this year, averages almost 12 points per game. The Tommies have about five other players who could also step up and play major roles in a game on any given night. That list includes sophomores Eric Tengwall, Zach Riedeman and Josh Pella.
That will be a big key as St. Thomas (21-6) opens the NCAA Division III Tournament with a match-up against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (25-2) out of California at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. The winner advances to play the UW-Whitewater/Northwestern winner Saturday night.
C-M-S is led by Chris Blees, a three-time conference player of the year who averages more than 15 points per game. The team averages about 70 points per game and shoots about 47 percent from the field per game.
The Stags also have one of the top-10 defenses in the country.
“It’s a great academic institution and they play really tough, hard-nosed defense,” Tauer said. “They’re 25-2 for a reason. They’ve got a lot of good shooters and we have a lot of respect for them. You’ve got to be ready to play anybody this time of year. These are the games you love to play in.”
The only downfall for the program might come after the season. Tauer is the interim head coach this year and a national search will be conducted for the next Tommies head coach. I’d say a regular season and playoff title in your first year is worth removing the interim label. It only helps that Tauer’s boss is Fritz, who is still on as athletic director and will ultimately make that decision.
“Steve was a great mentor and continues to be,” Tauer said.
Tommie Women Gear Up for NCAAs
Not to be overlooked is the St. Thomas women’s program, led by head coach Ruth Sinn. The Tommies have won 26 straight games since losing their season opener. That run includes a 22-0 mark in the MIAC, including a playoff title.
St. Thomas is led by Taylor Young and Maggie Weiers, who combine to average 24 points and 11 rebounds on the season.
The Tommies will host an NCAA regional this weekend in St. Paul. They’ll face Martin Luther (20-7) at 8 p.m. Friday. That winner will face the Coe College (Iowa)/UW-River Falls winner Saturday night.
It’s a good time of year to be a St. Thomas basketball fan. Check back next week for more on how the Tommie teams fare this weekend.