Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The St. Thomas basketball team got back to work this week after winning its third straight MIAC Playoff title on Sunday.
It was revealed Monday that the Tommies, ranked No. 1 in the nation heading into the NCAA Tournament, did not receive one of two first-round byes. Instead, St. Thomas (26-1) will host Aurora University (Illinois) at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Anderson Athletics Center.
Aurora (22-6, 14-2) won the Northern Athletic Conference title to earn their conference’s automatic bid.
The Tommies got there with a dominating second half against Augsburg in Sunday’s MIAC title game, outscoring the Auggies 51-30 in 92-65 victory. St. Thomas trailed most of the first, but got a 9-0 run to end the first 20 minutes with a 41-35 lead.
“It was fulfilling for our players and coaches. It’s definitely a nice springboard for the playoffs,” St. Thomas coach John Tauer said. “It was fun. We haven’t had the same explosiveness the last couple weeks that we had early, but things kid of clicked.”
Now since replacing retired coach Steve Fritz, Tauer has won consecutive MIAC titles and led the Tommies to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances since their national title run. While this year’s MIAC title and 26-1 record is great and something to store in the memory box, it doesn’t mean much anymore in the one-and-done playoff scenario.
St. Thomas now needs to win to keep playing, something that a team with plenty of playoff experience is well aware of. The Tommies also control their chances of playing at home. As long as they win, St. Thomas should have three home games before the national quarterfinals and semifinals are held in Salem, Va. The national championship will be in Atlanta, Ga.
“We’re excited to be playing Saturday at home, that’s the bottom line. It should be a fun game,” Tauer said.
Aurora should also be a team that St. Thomas has little trouble preparing for, because the Spartans on the stat sheet are a mirror image of the Tommies. They average about 85 points per game on the season, while limiting their opponents to less than 40 percent shooting from the field and about 30 percent from the perimeter.
They play the high-octane, up-temp approach that’s made the St. Thomas program so successful. The Spartans had five players score in double figures in their 95-71 win over Lakeland College in the NAC title game. Mike Bumber and Mark Adams led them with 21 points each, and Bumber shot 7-of-8 from three-point range.
St. Thomas hosted Aurora in the 2009 NCAA Tournament, a game the Tommies led 52-27 at the half and ended up winning 96-73.
“They’re a very talented team that scores in multiple ways. We played them in first round in 2009 so it’s nice to see these guys again. They’ve got a very good program. There’s no lay-ups in this tournament and we wouldn’t expect one,” Tauer said.
One thing to note is that Aurora will be without its leading scorer, Marious Lobdell. He averaged 16 points per game but was one of three players dismissed from the team before the NAC Playoffs.
Aurora will be making its ninth NCAA Tournament appearance and sixth in the past nine seasons.
It’s a great match-up on paper as St. Thomas averages about 82 points per game the season and Aurora allows about 74. The Tommies’ full-court press and pressure defense tends to force turnovers and bad shots, so it should be interesting to see how two teams who play similar styles square off.
The Spartans have 11 players who see at least 10 minutes per game, while Tauer’s team takes virtually the same approach. The Tommies are shooting almost 53 percent from the field on the season, a figure that will definitely be challenge by Aurora’s defense.
Scott Lasowski leads the Spartans with 11.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. Bumber adds about 11.3 points per game.
St. Thomas has an advantage of playing at home, meaning its routine and schedule stays the same leading up to Saturday’s contest.
“Certainly there’s comfort in routine. To not be traveling is nice and routines are similar. Saturday night we’re looking forward to having an electric environment,” Tauer said.
Focus is also a key intangible when it comes to the playoffs. Tauer gave his team some time off after Sunday’s MIAC title win, but after learning their fate for the NCAA Playoffs, he didn’t have to go far to find a nice surprise.
At least a dozen of the team’s players were in the gym on their day off putting up shots and working on things to get ready for practice this week.
“We’re blessed to have a lot of guys who know their role and it’s a fun group to be around. It’s just fun to see that kind of dedication and to see these guys put the work in. It makes a coach smile,” Tauer said.
The Tommies and Spartans tip off at 7 p.m. Saturday in St. Paul.