MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The St. Thomas men’s basketball team left Wednesday morning for the Elite Eight in Salem, Va., after narrowly beating Calvin College 63-62 in the NCAA Division III Sweet 16 last Saturday night.
Calvin stormed back from a 15-point second half deficit and had the game tied 60-60. With a little more than a minute left in regulation, Noah Kaiser hit arguably the biggest shot of his collegiate career to give the Tommies a 63-60 lead. It proved to be the game-winner. The play happened in transition as Kaiser faked a pass to a teammate, which left him open.
Kaiser finished with only nine points, but those three were among the biggest of the St. Thomas season so far. It was also just his sixth 3-point basket of the season.
“I was thrilled for Noah because he’s been through a lot this season,” said St. Thomas coach John Tauer. “He missed eight games with an injury and we had him coming off the bench. He accepted that role and exemplifies everything this program is about. It was sort of poetic justice.”
It was the last home game for Kaiser and four other seniors for St. Thomas, which is now 29-1 and ranked No. 1 in the nation. Tauer said since the win, he’s received dozens of phone calls and emails from happy alumni who witnessed one of the greatest games in school history.
“We’ve had some great games over the years at home, but I don’t know that we’ve had a better one where we had a lot at stake,” Tauer said.
Bryan Powell led all scorers with 31 points for Calvin, which included six 3-pointers. He scored 11 straight points to single-handedly bring Calvin back in the second half. He also took a contested shot that bounced off the front rim, allowing the Tommies to claim the win.
St. Thomas will face Williams College (26-4, 9-1), a team out of Massachusetts, in the Elite Eight at 11 a.m. local time Friday. Williams won the national title in 2003, beating Gustavus, and had has made five other appearances in the Final Four. That stretch includes a run in 2011.
Williams scores about 80 points per game and is shooting about 50 percent from the field on the season. That mark includes 40 percent shooting from three-point range.
Williams is led by Taylor Epley, a guard who scores about 18 points per game and shoots 42 percent from three-point range. Michael Mayer is their inside presence as he scores 17.8 points per game and grabs nearly nine rebounds per game. James Klemm averages 11 points per game and Daniel Wohl averages about 10.
Tauer said Williams only plays six to seven players per game, but their balance makes them dangerous.
“They’ve been a top five or top 10 team all year,” Tauer said. “Their starting five plays a lot of minutes, but they’re all dangerous. They have Klemm, one of the best shooters in the country. We’ve seen a lot of these guys. They’re really good on both ends of the floor. We have a ton of respect for their team and their coaching staff.”
Williams is one of three teams from the NESCAC in the Elite Eight.
St. Thomas wasn’t without things to work on in practice this week as Tauer said Saturday’s performance wasn’t its best of the season despite the win. The Tommies had 15 turnovers against Calvin and shot just 9-of-22 from the free-throw line.
“You can learn a lot from games like that,” Tauer said. “We missed free throws and turned it over more than I would like. But to win a national championship we have to hold leads better. We had a 15-point lead, so you have to take what you learned and get better.”
The Tommies won’t have a home court luxury in Salem, Va. Tauer said they’ll have to create their own energy. St. Thomas’s only loss of the season came at Concordia College-Moorhead.
The St. Thomas/William winner will face the Amherst/Cabrini winner at 6 p.m. Saturday in Salem, Va. That winner advances to the Division III title game, which will be held April 7 in Atlanta, Ga. The other quarterfinal games feature Mary Hardin-Baylor (25-5) against St. Mary’s (Md.) (27-3) and North Central of Illinois (27-3) against Middlebury of Vermont (25-3)
Williams has won three straight and six of its past seven. St. Thomas has won 13 straight heading into Friday’s contest. The Tommies are 13-3 in the NCAA Playoffs over the past five seasons, including a national title.
If you’re not traveling to Salem for Friday’s game, it is available online at ncaa.com.