Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – There is still plenty to be decided in the MIAC men’s basketball season, but St. Thomas knows one thing: They’re in the playoffs.
The Tommies beat Carleton 74-52 in Northfield Wednesday night to improve to 14-1 in MIAC play with five conference games left. The win clinched a playoff berth for St. Thomas for the eighth straight year, and a win Saturday at Augsburg could put them in the record books.
No team in the MIAC has ever won eight straight regular season titles, and the Tommies would clinch at least a share of that with a win over the Auggies in Minneapolis. It would be the first time a team won the regular season conference title in the 95-year history of the MIAC.
St. Thomas has a 3.5 game lead over second place Augsburg (10-4) and a win puts them at 15-1 with four games left. The Tommies need a guarantee of four losses or less to earn the top seed for the playoffs. St. Thomas can win the MIAC outright with a win Saturday and a Concordia (10-5) loss to Gustavus (8-7).
The top two teams at the end of the regular season earn first-round byes for the MIAC Playoffs, which start Feb. 20.
“Guys understand the legacy that the players before them left,” said St. Thomas coach John Tauer. “Winning that MIAC title is certainly one of our goals, it has been all year, but it’s definitely not going to be easy.”
That’s because at this point, only three teams have been all but eliminated from playoff contention. Starting with Saturday’s game at Augsburg, the Tommies’ last five games are against teams that are all playoff contenders. Only St. Olaf at 6-8 is currently on the outside looking in.
There’s plenty of jockeying left to be done, so every game will have meaning regardless of if the Tommies clinch the No. 1 seed.
“People look at our last six games and they’re all teams vying for home court or a playoff spot,” Tauer said. “We know we’ll get everyone’s best shot and get teams that are desperate. It’s great to have playoff atmosphere in those games.
St. Thomas improved to 14-1 in MIAC play after beating Hamline 81-46 last Saturday and winning at Carleton Wednesday night. In the Hamline win, the Tommies’ press forced 17 Pipers turnovers as they out-scored Hamline 48-16 in the second half. Marcus Alipate scored 14 points, hitting 4-of-5 from three-point range. Will DeBerg led St. Thomas with 19 points.
In the Carleton win, St. Thomas used a 14-2 run in the second half to pull away for the win. John Nance and Zach Riedeman scored 15 points each, and the Tommies limited the Knights to 37 percent shooting from the field, including just 5-of-18 from the perimeter. St. Thomas also held a 38-19 rebounding advantage.
“Hamline really tested our depth. We were down 24-16 early and we were missing two starters, plus two of guys who started got into foul trouble,” Tauer said. “Some guys really stepped up and gave us really good minutes. The last 30 minutes we executed very, very well.”
Tauer said he was especially proud of his team’s win at Carleton, calling it one of St. Thomas’s best wins of the season.
“Carleton doesn’t give you anything easy, so we were really excited about that win,” Tauer said.
Saturday’s game against Augsburg will be at 3 p.m. at Si Melby Hall in Minneapolis. When the two teams met back on Jan. 5, the Tommies got out to a 45-23 lead at the half and ran away with a 94-52 victory. Augsburg shot just 35 percent from the field in the game and committed 17 turnovers. Dan Kornbaum, one of the top players in the MIAC, was limited to just eight points and four rebounds for the Auggies.
After Saturday, St. Thomas has four games in a nine-day stretch to end the regular season. The Tommies host Bethel, travel to Gustavus and St. Johns and host St. Olaf for their final regular season home game.