MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Every game is big in conference play, but St. Thomas and St. Olaf meet Wednesday night for the biggest game the two teams have played in a long time.
It’s been a while since the Oles have been a relevant program in MIAC men’s basketball. St. Olaf has made the playoffs twice in the last six seasons, losing in the quarterfinals both times. It’s what’s making this year’s 14-2 run for the Oles during MIAC play that much more impressive this year.
With a playoff spot locked up for both teams, St. Thomas needs a road win Wednesday to essentially clinch the regular season title and a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. If St. Olaf prevails, the two quads will be tied at 15-2 in MIAC play with three league games left. If both teams were to finish 18-2 in the MIAC, tiebreakers would determine the No. 1 seed.
“It should be a lot of fun. Coach (Dan) Kosmoski does a tremendous job and has a senior-laden group,” said St. Thomas coach John Tauer. “They have one of the best point guards in the country and they’re one of the best teams in the country right now.”
The Tommies, ranked in the top-15 in the country, improved to 15-1 in league play with a comfortable 92-59 win over St. Mary’s on Saturday. It’s the six straight win for St. Thomas after its only MIAC loss. St. Olaf improved to 14-2 with a 72-61 win over St. John’s on Saturday. When the Tommies and Oles met earlier this season in St. Paul, Zach Riedeman hit a 15-foot jumper with a few seconds left to let St. Thomas escape with a 62-61 victory.
Since that loss to St. Thomas, St. Olaf has won 10 straight games, and seven of the 10 wins have come by double digits. It’s the first of three straight home games for St. Olaf, which also hosts Hamline and Macalester before it travels to Bethel for its regular season finale.
St. Thomas has as tough a finishing stretch as any team in the league. After traveling to Northfield to take on the Oles, the Tommies head to Moorhead Saturday to face Concordia, then go to St. Peter on Feb. 19 to face Gustavus and finish at home on Feb. 22 against rival St. John’s.
St. Thomas, St. Olaf and Gustavus have clinched MIAC playoff berths as we head towards the stretch run of the regular season. Augsburg, St. John’s, Bethel, Carleton and Concordia make up a five-team group battling for the final three spots.
“These four games with both the travel and the opponents, those games will all mean a lot,” Tauer said. “Every one of them should have a great atmosphere. They’ll have the pressure-cooker kind of feel that our guys love playing in.”
The Tommies left little doubt in getting their sixth straight league win since losing at St. John’s. They went on a 15-0 run early to take a 19-4 lead and held a 42-28 lead at the half. The game never got closer than 14 points in the second half. Zach Riedeman led the Tommies with 15 points and Taylor Montero added 11. St. Thomas showed a balanced scoring attack, getting to 92 points with just three players in double figures.
The win was especially significant for the team’s seniors as Riedeman, Eric Tengwall and Josh Pella earned their 100th college victories. Over their three-plus seasons, the trio has a 100-15 record. Riedeman has emerged as the leading scorer for St. Thomas at 12.1 points per game. Conner Nord and Marcus Alipate are also in double figures and Tengwall is just below 10 points per game. Tengwall is also running the offense, averaging more than three assists per game with less than one turnover on average.
“(Eric) Tengwall has done a superb job of leading us. He’s been a starter for three seasons but this last month he’s taken the reigns of how we play,” Tauer said. “(Zach) Riedeman is a senior who has played in final fours and been a part of a lot of success, he’s playing like you hope a senior captain would.”
To get a victory over St. Olaf Wednesday, the St. Thomas defensive scheme will center around limiting point guard Connor Gunderson. He leads the Oles with more than 15 points per game and is shooting about 65 percent from the field this season. Sterling Neisen also averages more than 11 points per game. St. Olaf is 8-0 at home this season, so a road win for the Tommies will be no easy task.
“Gunderson is playing like one of the best point guards in the country,” Tauer said.
The two teams square off at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Skoglund Center in Northfield. The winner has the inside track at the MIAC regular season title.