Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The road to a championship is never an easy one, and the St. Thomas basketball team isn’t expecting an easy match-up when it faces Wheaton College Saturday night.
The Tommies (27-1), ranked No. 1 in the nation, advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division III Tournament after using their depth to overwhelm Aurora University in a 91-62 win. It was arguably their best and most complete game of the season. They’ll need another effort a lot like that, perhaps even better, to knock off Wheaton and advance to the third round.
St. Thomas will take plenty of confidence into Saturday night’s contest after beating Aurora like it did many of its opponents during the season: with suffocating defense turning into easy scoring chances on offense. The Tommies limited Aurora to 23 points under their season average on the season and 33 percent shooting.
“You don’t ever expect to beat anybody by 29 in the national tournament,” said St. Thomas coach John Tauer. “I don’t think we played our best game, we missed some free throws and had a few too many turnovers. Defensively I thought our energy was great, we were really locked in after the first five or six minutes. We’re very aware that we still have work to do.”
Wheaton comes in as one of the at-large bids in the national tournament after losing to North Central College in the CCIW Playoffs. The Thunder are 21-6 on the season and finished 10-4 in conference play. They trailed by 14 at half against St. Norbert last week before coming back to claim a 59-58 victory.
Tauer said his team is well aware of the threats Wheaton will bring to the court, even though the two teams haven’t met this season and don’t have any common opponents. Sometimes the biggest adjustment to the playoffs is facing the unknown, and the team that adjusts the quickest has the best chance to win.
“Wheaton is really good. They’re a top team from one of the top conferences in the country,” Tauer said. “They’re a very good team that really doesn’t have a weakness anywhere, and they’re not going to come in here and be afraid to play us. We’ll need our best game.”
The Thunder average about 70 points per game on the season and take more of a half-court approach to shooting 46 percent from the field. They also only allow about 59 points per game to their opponents on about 41 percent shooting for the season.
They’re led by All-CCIW guard Tyler Peters, who is shooting 54 percent from the field on the season and averages nearly 19 points per game. He’s one of four players who average double figures in scoring on the season. Brayden Teuscher is a shooter who scores more than 13 points per contest, and Nathan Haynes averages a double-double with about 10 points and nearly 11 rebounds per game. Michael Kvam also scores about 13 points a game on the season.
Wheaton enters the game having won five of its past six. The team’s balanced scoring approach will present a big challenge for St. Thomas’s high pressure defensive approach. The team that wins the battle of the guards likely wins the game and advances.
“They have an unbelievable point guard who triggers everything they do. You certainly don’t go in thinking you’re going to shut him down,” Tauer said of Peters. “You want to contain him and neutralize everyone else. They have six or seven guys can really hurt you.”
It’s a challenge that Eric Tengwall, John Nance, Marcus Alipate and Will DeBerg probably welcome among the group of St. Thomas guards. Those four were instrumental in creating turnovers and tough shots in the Aurora win, and getting easy offensive chances out of those.
Tommy Hannon should also have an interesting match-up with Haynes inside. Hannon had 14 points and 13 rebounds in the Aurora win, and Haynes averages a double-double on the season.
If the Tommies can come out with a win, they would get the winner of Calvin and UW-Steven’s Point. That sets up the chance for a rematch with the Pointers, whom St. Thomas beat 63-58 early this season.
But for right now, they have to concentrate on beating Wheaton because now the season is on the line every time the Tommies hit the court. St. Thomas has won 11 straight games since its only loss of the season.
“Wheaton has played a lot of the top teams already so they won’t be phased by anything,” Tauer said. It’s a valuable experience for our young guys to get to see these different teams in this kind of environment. It’s just a different experience when the season is on the line.”
St. Thomas and Wheaton tip off at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Anderson Athletic Center in St. Paul.