Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The St. Thomas basketball team is in an unusual spot this weekend, but it’s one they welcome.
The Tommies, ranked a unanimous No. 1 in Division III, finished out their regular season Wednesday night with a 62-57 win over St. Olaf. It concluded a 24-1 regular season, including a 19-1 mark in MIAC play. St. Thomas is the No. 1 seed for the MIAC Playoffs, which start next week.
They can sit and rest, while four teams battle for three playoff spots on Saturday. Gustavus, Bethel, Carleton and St. John’s are all still battling for postseason contention. To make a long story short: Gustavus, Bethel and St. John’s can lock up playoff spots with wins on Saturday. St. John’s needs a win and some help from others to get in.
The Tommies will host a MIAC semifinal on Friday, Feb. 22 against the lowest remaining seed in the playoffs. It’s pretty unusual for the playoff teams to be undecided heading into the final weekend of the regular season. Normally the playoff berths are clinched and there’s jockeying for seeding.
“We could play any of three teams at this point, there’s still a lot of ambiguity,” said St. Thomas coach John Tauer. “We prefer heir on the side of focusing on ourselves at this point. I’ve never seen it where there’s this many teams still up in the air. It’s reflective of the balance in the league.”
St. Thomas wrapped up its regular season with a pair of wins in the past week. The Tommies went up to rival St. John’s, and in a hostile environment, ran away with a 93-68 victory. They led 44-31 and were led by Tommy Hannon’s 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting. Hannon and Connor Nord combined for 32 points, 13 rebounds and 13-of-17 shooting from the field.
The Tommies shot 64 percent from the field in the game, and that’s how they pulled away from the Johnnies since they only committed three turnovers.
“They had a great crowd and it was their alumni day so it was a great atmosphere,” Tauer said. “Fortunately we came out fast and we took the crowd out of it so they weren’t a factor for a while.
Wednesday was the final regular season home game for five seniors: Hannon, Will DeBerg, John Nance, Noah Kaiser and Drew Mathews.
While it was far from a pretty game, St. Thomas got a victory to finish the season with eight straight wins since losing 54-52 at Concordia-Moorhead. Nance scored 19 points, while Kaiser added 11 and DeBerg had 10.
Tauer said it was an emotional night for a group of kids who have invested at least four years in the program, some of which were part of the 2011 national championship team.
“Those five guys stand for all the values of our basketball program,” Tauer said. “People forget Will DeBerg didn’t play much at all his first two years, and that isn’t easy when you’re a star in high school. Tommy (Hannon) got cut from his high school team and became one of our best players, John (Nance) was a Big 10 athlete before he came to us. Noah Kaiser is also one of the most versatile athletes in the conference.”
Tauer also said that while Mathews hasn’t played much in four years (he’s seen action in 10 games, averages 3.3 minutes and has scored one field goal all season), he’s been an integral piece to the program.
“Drew Matthews possesses all the same values and doesn’t get to play a ton, but he’s a guy that our freshman and sophomores can look up to,” Tauer said. “He comes to practice every day and is as hard a worker as we have. It gives you chills as a coach when you see somebody who’s that committed.”
What lies ahead now is a MIAC Playoff title and an NCAA tournament run. At this point, the Tommies will be an at-large selection regardless of what happens in the MIAC Playoffs, but have plenty to play for in the postseason with region rankings and home court in the NCAA tournament at stake.
“We feel good about our chances to be in the tournament. Last year we were a little more on the bubble and we earned it. It’s not going to change how we prepare for the MIAC playoffs, but it’s a nice insurance policy.”
Tauer said since the team isn’t playing now for a week, he’ll let his players get some rest and focus on fixing little things to get ready for the playoffs. When you won’t know until the middle of next week who your opponent be, your only focus can and should be on yourself.
“We’re focused on fine-tuning some things and adding a wrinkle or two for the playoffs,” Tauer said. “But really our only thing is we’re just focused on getting better.”
As balanced and as deep as the Tommies are, they seem to find plenty of things they can work on to do just that. Staying humble in that respect might be the key to winning the MIAC Playoffs and making an NCAA tournament run.