MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – There were some anxious basketball players on the St. Thomas campus Monday morning as they waited to find out if they had a postseason coming.
After losing 63-53 to St. Olaf in the MIAC Playoff championship game Sunday, The Tommies (22-5) left their fate in the hands of the NCAA Selection Committee where anything can happen. Fortunately, St. Thomas didn’t have to wait long to find out it was granted one of the few available at-large bids in the 62-team field.
The Tommies are headed to a four-team regional hosted by UW-Whitewater. They’ll face Augustana College (Ill.), a team out of the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin. St. Thomas earned its ninth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament after reaching the Final Four last year and winning the national championship in 2011.
“A lot of our players were in class, but we had about 10 players and coaches free for the selection show,” said. St. Thomas coach John Tauer. “Word travels quickly. We thought there was a decent chance we were going to Whitewater, but the bottom line is we’re still playing.”
The selection helped get over losing the MIAC championship on their home floor the day before. Taylor Montero led St. Thomas with 18 points and 13 rebounds, but the Tommies were plagued by an overall off night shooting. They made just 36.5 percent of their field goals, including just 3-of-16 (18 percent) from three-point range.
St. Olaf didn’t shoot all that great either, 40 percent for the game and 13 percent from three-point range. But they made big shots in clutch situations and pulled away late with a slew of made free throws.
Tauer said he expected a close game with so much on the line, especially when the two regular season games, both St. Thomas wins, were decided by a combined five points.
“That’s the name of the game, you have to put the ball in the basket. It was similar to the first two games, but they hit a couple shots and we missed a couple shots,” Tauer said. “We knew it was going to be a physical, defensive battle. We didn’t get into a rhythm offensively and missed some shots.”
It also hurt St. Thomas being without point guard Eric Tengwall, who sprained his ankle in the regular season finale against St. John’s. He missed the Bethel victory and could not play against the Oles. His status for Friday’s game against Augustana is also in doubt. Tauer said it’s likely a game-time decision.
The focused has turned to beating Augustana, which enters the NCAA Tournament with a 19-7 record, including a 9-5 mark in CCIW play. The two teams did not meet in the regular season, as is the case in most NCAA Tournament games, but they do have one common opponent: St. Olaf.
The Vikings beat the Oles back in November, 68-59. But it’s hard to infer much from that game as a lot has changed with both teams since.
Augustana is led by sophomore point guard Hunter Hill, who scores nearly 13 points per game and shoots nearly 47 percent from three-point range. The Vikings are also led by Tayvian Johnson’s 10 points per game, and Danelius Jurgutis averages 8.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
The Vikings outscore opponents on average 73-62 on the season, and defense is their strength. They limit opponents to about 41 percent shooting from the field, including just 31 percent from the perimeter. That will be a big test for the Tommies’ guard-oriented offensive attack.
The Tommies and Vikings have met before in the NCAA Tournament. St. Thomas beat them in the 2011 Elite 8 to go to the Final Four, the year it won the national title.
“Augustana is very good. The coach has been there about 15 years and they’re a national power on a yearly basis,” Tauer said. “They have great size and they are really tough inside. It makes them tough when the leading scorer is a sophomore guard. They’re expected to be in the tournament every year.”
The winner of Friday’s game will face the winner of host UW-Whitewater/Northwestern Saturday night.
St. Olaf didn’t get many favors from the selection committee for earning the MiAC’s automatic bid. The Oles (22-5) face Central College of Iowa in the first round on Friday. If they win, they likely face UW-Steven’s Point, the host of the regional and the No. 1-ranked team in the country.
If St. Thomas wins Friday night’s game, it likely gets UW-Whitewater on Saturday in what would be a tough environment.
“When you get to the NCAA Tournament there aren’t many games you can just chalk up. There aren’t ways to snake through the tournament,” Tauer said. “You have to rely on what’s gotten you there now and you have to trust that everything we’ve done to prepare to this point will get us ready for anybody we’ll see.”
St. Thomas and Augustana tip at 6:30 p.m. Friday at UW-Whitewater. If the Tommies win, they’ll play at 8 p.m. Saturday to get to the Sweet 16.