MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – You can never be fully satisfied as a coach, but John Tauer has to be pretty happy with his squad over at St. Thomas.
The Tommies beat Gustavus 61-50 Wednesday night, led by a 19-5 edge at the free-throw line, to improve to 8-0 in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. St. Thomas (11-2, 8-0) has won eight straight games since a 75-62 loss to No. 1-ranked UW-Steven’s Point just before Christmas. The Tommies are on their way to what would be a ninth straight regular season MIAC title, something that’s never been done in league history.
While that’s the ultimate goal, Tauer said he’s focused on Saturday’s home game against Concordia (Moorhead).
“Steven’s Point beat us up, and we learned a lot from it,” Tauer said. “Our guys have understood what we need to work on since that game.”
St. Thomas is in the middle of a brutal stretch of MIAC play that doesn’t allow for a lot of practice time. The Tommies have had four games in eight days, and three of those opponents have all been in second place in the league when they faced St. Thomas. The first run through conference play concludes with the Cobbers Saturday and a game at St. John’s on Monday.
The Tommies also head to Augsburg Wednesday before getting a week off. That’s a stretch of seven games over 15 days. Tauer said he was impressed with his team’s defense and patience in this week’s win over Gustavus.
“It was a grind-it-out game. We established more of a presence inside but I was most pleased with our defense. We just contested their shots,” Tauer said. Gustavus shot 43 percent from the field in the contest. “Their shooting percentage (on the season) is out of this world. They work for great shots, it’s one of the reasons they’re so tough.”
The recent stretch also included a 62-61 win over St. Olaf, where the Tommies got a lay-up late in the closing seconds to seal a victory. The Oles, at 6-2 in MIAC play, are the surprise of the league early on. St. Thomas also beat Bethel 81-68 in a game where it trailed at the half.
Tauer said this year, the MIAC might be as balanced as it’s ever been. It’s still early in league play, but five teams including the Tommies are still very much in contention for the league title and the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
He said it’s way too early to talk about winning another regular season title or, even with an 8-0 start, going unbeaten in league play. The Tommies finish the regular season with road games at St. Olaf, at Concordia, at Gustavus and a home finale against St. John’s.
“You look at the schedule and you can see why we don’t look ahead,” Tauer said. “We don’t think about our next three games, we don’t think about going 20-0. We’re getting ready for Concordia. They’re 3-6 in the MIAC but they could easily be 7-2. They’re really dangerous.”
Through 13 games, St. Thomas has another balanced scoring attack, which is exactly what Tauer is looking for out of his high-octane approach to the game. Conner Nord leads the Tommies at 12.5 points per game and is also averaging just less than seven rebounds per contest. Marcus Alipate is scoring more than 11 points per game and shooting nearly 45 percent from three-point range. Zach Riedeman is scoring 11.1 points per game.
One of the early impressive road victories was a Jan. 13 81-68 win at Bethel. Cortez Tillman, who averages 6.5 points per game, scored 23 points to lead the Tommies to a win. He scored 18 of those in the second half.
“They came in the last six minutes. It was a run unlike many I’ve ever seen,” Tauer said.
St. Thomas looks for its ninth straight win against Concordia at 3 p.m. Saturday in St. Paul.