By DOUG HENNES
Zach Riedeman walked off Steve Fritz Court Saturday night and exclaimed, to no one in particular, “That was by far the most physical game I’ve been in in my three years at St. Thomas.”
His coaches and teammates didn’t disagree with the junior forward, and in the locker room they quietly celebrated having survived a rumble with Wheaton College and emerging with a 68-58 win in the second-round NCAA Division III playoff game.
The referees blew the whistle for fouls 51 times -– 30 against Wheaton and 21 against the Tommies, who won the game at the free-throw line, where they outscored the Thunder 28-11. Twenty-nine fouls were called in the second half, with three Wheaton players fouling out and two finishing with four fouls.
“It was a battle all night long,” said Riedeman, who had 11 points and four assists. “They played us tough inside and came after us hard.”
The win before 1,450 Schoenecker Arena fans moves top-ranked St. Thomas (28-1) into a Sweet Sixteen game at home next Saturday night against No. 12 Calvin, a 67-58 winner over No. 14 UW-Stevens Point.
Coach John Tauer praised his players for their resilience in standing up to the Thunder, who finished third in a league -– the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin -– known for its physical style. He likes facing CCIW teams, St. Thomas having defeated Illinois Wesleyan and Augustana two years ago en route to its national title.
“Our guys didn’t back down from the challenge,” Tauer said. “Some people question the toughness of the MIAC, but I think we showed them a thing or two tonight.”
“We knew they would try to make it a dogfight,” said senior center Tommy Hannon, who had his second straight double-double with game highs of 18 points and 10 rebounds. “And that was okay with us.”
The Tommies controlled the tempo early, going on an 11-2 run to jump ahead 21-10 midway through the first half. They extended the lead to 37-19 after a 16-6 run on Riedeman’s free throw with 4:18 left -– their 14th free throw in as many tries.
But Wheaton held St. Thomas scoreless for the rest of the half and trailed 37-25 at the break. Riedeman broke his team’s 6:25 drought with a jumper two minutes into the second half, and when freshman Taylor Montero hit his second 3-pointer -– the only treys of the game for the Tommies –- their lead stood at 57-41 with seven minutes to go.
The Thunder scored 12 of the next 14 points, interrupted only by two Hannon free throws, to cut the St. Thomas lead 59-53 with 3:12 to go.
“We got complacent on offense,” Riedeman said of the Tommies, who missed four shots and had a turnover during the four-minute stretch. “But give credit to Wheaton. They never gave up.”
Tauer agreed and pointed out that the Thunder thrice cut St. Thomas leads to six points with three starters out on fouls, including top scorer Tyler Peters. The 6-foot-4 guard finished with 10 points -– nine below his season average –- and hit all four of his baskets on layups after long slashing drives. He also had eight of Wheaton’s 21 turnovers (to the Tommies’ 14).
“They made some tough shots at the end,” Tauer said, “and we got a little stagnant on offense, like we were waiting for good things to happen on offense instead of making them happen.”
Riedeman and Hannon turned in the key plays to hold off Wheaton. Riedeman made a free throw for a 60-53 lead and missed the second one, but Hannon got the offensive rebound. He flipped the ball to Riedeman, who found Hannon underneath for an open layup and a 62-53 lead.
A Wheaton 3-pointer again cut the deficit to six, but Riedeman hit a layup off a Will DeBerg feed. After a Wheaton basket, the Tommies made four free throws in the final minute.
St. Thomas’ next opponent is Calvin of Grand Rapids, Mich. The Knights (26-3) won the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association title after finishing 13-13 a year ago and are riding a six-game winning streak. One of their losses was to Wheaton, 54-37 in late November, and they since have won 20 of 22 games.
St. Thomas came into the game No. 1 in Division III in field goal percentage (.529) but shot only 44 percent against Wheaton, including 36 percent in the second half. The two 3-pointers were a season low and the 28 free throws were a season high.
The win was No. 50 for Tauer, in his second year as head coach. He is 50-8 (.862). The Tommies are 133-16 over their last five seasons -– tops in Division III, and are 41-3 since new Schoenecker opened in 2010. They also are 14-0 in on-campus postseason games over the last four years.
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