Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It might be difficult to tell when a team which only has one loss on the season is peaking, but St. Thomas might be doing just that right now.
The nation’s No. 1-ranked team in Division III dominated in its NCAA first round game against Aurora University (Illinois) in a 91-62 victory last Saturday night. St. Thomas advances to play Wheaton College of Illinois, which beat St Norbert 59-58. The Tommies will host Wheaton at 7 p.m. Saturday in St. Paul.
Aurora came into Saturday’s contest averaging 85 points per game, but St. Thomas’s pressure approach and full-court press forced the Spartans into 15 turnovers and 33 percent shooting from the field. They were held to 23 points under their average after being forced to take tough, contested shots.
Aurora actually had an early 8-7 lead, but the Tommies turned up their defensive pressure and the result was a 17-4 run that gave St. Thomas a 25-12 lead. The Tommies didn’t let up from their and raced to a 42-22 lead at the half.
The second-half lead grew to 30 points as St. Thomas shot 55 percent from the field and out-rebounded Aurora 47-35 in the win. The Tommies also had 24 assists on 34 made field goals.
Tommy Hannon led St. Thomas with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Zach Riedeman added 13 points and was the shooting spark that gave the Tommies a first-half lead.
St. Thomas had 13 players score in the victory, and Aurora had no answer for their balanced attack in all phases. The Tommies even had a little fun in the second half as Connor Nord had a big dunk and Josh Pella had a slam off an alley-oop pass that brought the crowd to its feet.
In the bigger picture, St. Thomas put together one of its best games at the season at the perfect time. I’m not sure the Tommies could’ve put together a more impressive effort over the course of 40 minutes. The only thing that disrupted their flow was something they hadn’t experience all season: television timeouts. During the regular season, games are only webcast and they’re not televised so there are at least four lengthy breaks during each half, not counting other timeouts that are taken.
It’s a consistent rule among the NCAA Tournament and it’s an adjustment they’ll have to make moving forward, but it clearly didn’t bother them too much.
St. Thomas had a 12-player rotation throughout the contest, and everybody contributed in some fashion of the victory. After the game, the team’s depth was described as “frightening” by some on-lookers, and even a few St. Thomas fans were surprised at the level the team played at together. Players for Aurora during the game went so far as to tell some St. Thomas players on the court “Man you guys are good.”
If St. Thomas plays like they did against Aurora the rest of the way, it should be hoisting a national championship trophy later this month.
The Tommies will need to carry that into this weekend’s contest against Wheaton, which trailed St. Norbert by as many as 14 points in the second half before storming back for the win. Wheaton comes in having earned an at-large big with a 21-6 record after losing to North Central College 59-50 in the CCIW title game.
The WCCO Tommies Blog will have a full preview of Saturday’s contest later this week.