The St. Thomas basketball team had arguably the longest 90 hours of its season late last week. After losing in the MIAC Playoff semifinals last Thursday, the Tommies were firmly on the bubble for the NCAA Division III Tournament.
Nothing was certain for St. Thomas after losing to St. John’s 80-78. The Tommies were without one of their top players, Ryan Boll, who was out with the flu. Their season hung in the balance for nearly four full days, until tournament pairings were announced Monday.
“As a competitor it was tough to lose, but it was just an outstanding basketball game,” St. Thomas coach John Tauer said of the loss to St. John’s. “We were down 14 in the second half and our guys showed great resilience coming back. It was just a great game.”
Tauer and his team gathered in their locker room Monday to watch the Selection Show unfold. Anxiety and stress turned to relief and joy when they saw their name on the bracket. The Tommies learned they were dancing for the 12th straight year. The season wasn’t over.
St. Thomas (19-7) will face Augustana of Illinois (19-8) in the opening round Friday night at a regional hosted by UW-Whitewater. In the second game Friday night, Northwestern will face UW-Whitewater. The two winners meet Saturday night for a trip to the Sweet 16.
“It was a sigh of relief and guys had a genuine sense of excitement because of the uncertainty,” Tauer said. “There are only 21 at-large bids and not many teams get to continue playing. The committee saw that we played good teams in the non-conference and had success. You love being in the tournament, but being on the bubble was tenuous.”
St. Thomas was 4-1 in the non-conference this season, with their only loss coming to a top-10 team in UW-River Falls.
Bethel hosted St. John’s for the MIAC’s automatic bid Saturday night. The Royals beat the Johnnies 79-75, and their reward is an opening round match-up at UW-River Falls. The Falcons are ranked No. 6 in the nation.
The Tommies are making their 18th appearance overall and have had to do it with new players after losing six of their top eight players from last year’s national championship run. The 12 straight NCAA appearances for St. Thomas is the second longest streak in the country behind Wooster’s 15 straight. In the last eight years, four other MIAC teams have been in Division III’s Big Dance along with St. Thomas. They include Carleton, St. Olaf, Gustavus and Bethel.
“When you step back and look at it, it’s a pretty incredible run. The balance in the MIAC is the most remarkable thing,” Tauer said. “Seven of our conference titles have been within one game. The league is just a grind.”
Between the tournament uncertainty and needing rest, the Tommies didn’t do much after losing last Thursday’s semifinal to St. John’s. The title game loss was an especially tough pill for the Johnnies to swallow. St. John’s hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2007.
Augustana is a familiar opponent for St. Thomas. The two teams have met in four of the last seven years. They squared off last year for the region championship and a spot in the Final Four at stake. The Tommies claimed an 86-76 victory as part of the road to the national title. They also met for the region title during St. Thomas’s run to the 2011 national championship.
The Vikings are a balanced team with five players who average double figures in scoring. They’re led by Chrishawn Orange’s 14 points per game. Jacob Johnston averages 13 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, and Dylan Sortillo adds 12.5 points per game.
For the season, Augustana is shooting nearly 49 percent from the field and 36 percent from three-point range. They allow 43.6 percent shooting and 39 percent from the perimeter. They enter the NCAA Tournament having lost four of their past five, including the CCIW title game on Saturday to North Central.
“I would put them in the top five programs in the country every year. They’re a national power,” Tauer said. “They’ve got great size and they play tenacious defense. They’re just really, really good.”
It will be crucial for the Tommies to have Boll back in the lineup for the NCAA Tournament. They finished 15-4 in their final 19 games, and were 15-2 with him playing. He missed two games with an ankle injury, both losses.
St. Thomas and Augustana have many similarities. The Tommies lost four of their five starters from last year’s national title run. Augustana lost at least six of its top players from last year’s Elite Eight squad. The big difference in style of play. The Vikings like to run, and St. Thomas plays in the half-court whenever possible.
“They’re always physically imposing so rebounding will be huge. They get out in transition and go, so we have to get back,” Tauer said. “We just have to go out and play, and trust what we do.”
If St. Thomas can beat Augustana, the Tommies would secure 20 wins for the 12th straight season.