Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – This week was spring break at the University of St. Thomas, and men’s basketball coach John Tauer said half-jokingly he’s miserable.
It’s got nothing to do with school, but rather that he’s not preparing to play for a national championship. St. Thomas, leading by 10 with about six minutes to play in the NCAA semifinals, suffered a gut-wrenching 74-67 loss to Mary Hardin-Baylor last Saturday in Salem, Va. A team that had title aspirations fell a game short of getting there despite finishing with the most wins of any team in the country.
The finality of the season set in for the players in the closing seconds as many were left stunned, wondering what had just happened at that the season is over. The part that’s tougher to accept: they won’t be getting the chance to win a national title despite an otherwise great season.
“It was a tough loss and a painful end to an amazing season,” Tauer said. “It’s a masochistic profession when you have 407 teams, and 406 leave disappointed. But I’m really proud of how our guys played all year.”
St. Thomas got to the national semifinals with a second half comeback victory over Williams last Friday. It was a contest where the Tommies (30-2) trailed by as many as 14 points before they started their comeback.
After trailing early against Mary Hardin-Baylor, St. Thomas seemingly had control with a 14-point lead in the second half. When Eric Tengwall hit a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to give St. Thomas a 10-point lead with six minutes left, the Tommies seemed to be in control.
But Mary Hardin-Baylor forced St. Thomas into 17 turnovers and went 27-of-34 at the free-throw line. They took the lead late in the game when Cory Meals hit a 3-pointer, was fouled and made the free throw.
“The last six minutes was sort of an imperfect storm, everything that could go wrong did,” Tauer said. “The bottom line is they beat us and I give them a lot of credit.”
It was the final college game for seniors Tommy Hannon, Will DeBerg, John Nance, Noah Kaiser and Drew Matthews. Tauer said it was an emotional locker room after the game, given the events that took place late and the finality that the season was over.
“When you get into March there’s an awareness that it could be it (if you lose), Tauer said. “This was a special team that all bought into the system. Losing a chance to win the national championship was definitely tough, but it was more that the guys wouldn’t be together again to play.”
It’s tough to recognize at the time, but Tauer said it’s important to also focus on what the St. Thomas program accomplished this season. The Tommies had their third 30-win season and have won or shared eight straight MIAC regular season titles. St. Thomas has also won seven of the past eight MIAC Playoff titles.
The Tommies led the nation in field goal percentage this year and their 30 wins tied a school record. They also led the nation in wins and scoring margin.
Tauer said he took a day or two to look back on the season, let it sink in and then hit the recruiting trail. That’s what coaches have to do when a season ends: reflect for a short time, then get ready for the next season. Tauer said this year’s group was one that he will always remember. It’s one that went out of its way to spend more time in the gym, get another shot up and one that didn’t have to be told to come to practice.
Tauer said many of the players took their own personal time away from organized practice to work on their games and push themselves to get better so the team would be stronger this season.
“I just feel blessed to coach. What I will say is I can’t imagine a team that was more consistent from start to finish,” Tauer said. “They didn’t care about stats, it was just that the team played well and they all had fun being around each other. I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails from people who you wouldn’t expect tell me they love how we played.”
The Tommies will bring plenty back next year to stay a strong team in the MIAC. The reality is they are the favorite until somebody knocks them off. Returning players who all played significant minutes this year include Zach Riedeman, Taylor Montero, Josh Pella, Connor Nord, Marcus Alipate, Eric Tengwall and Cortez Tillman. Combine that with current recruiting efforts and the future is bright for St. Thomas.
Tauer said as tough as the loss was, it’s just as important to reflect on the positives of the season.
“Our guys are passionate and committed and we did some great things this year,” Tauer said. “As tough as that loss was, we had a fantastic season. The guys will come back next year hungry now that we’ve had this experience.”