Gene's Blog: Hoops scoreboard reads Poise 2, Noise 0

St. Thomas head coach Ruth Sinn has a poster behind her desk that reads: "If it doesn't challenge you, it doesn't change you."

That philosophy was put to the test this week in MIAC basketball for Sinn and her Tommie colleague Johnny Tauer.

Looking to prepare for the intensity of the postseason, both St. Thomas basketball teams channeled rocker Pat Benatar.

The host Johnnie men and Gustie women obliged, hitting the Toms with their best shot -- if not completely on the stat sheet, certainly in atmosphere.

Two of the larger crowds ever to watch MIAC men's and women's basketball games were on hand in Collegeville and St. Peter to root on their teams in showdown games againt the Tommies.

Saturday, with an announced crowd of 2,349 pumping up the volume, St. Thomas held off the St. John's men, 74-65, in a game that eventually could decide who wins or shares the conference championship. Click here to see St. Cloud Times story.

" The atmosphere at St. John's was electric," Tauer said. "They have a great student section, and our guys enjoy playing in those types of games. Playing quality opponents on the road is memorable because of the energy, and the fact that there's so much at stake. These games prepare you for the postseason. MIAC playoff games are always a different level of intensity, and we've also been fortunate to have 21 NCAA playoff games over the past six years, including three Final Fours. That's part of why we always play a strong schedule, to attempt to simulate the level of competition and atmosphere of playoff games. Whether it's at Stevens Point, Augustana, or St. John's, our teams love playing excellent teams in big games."

Wednesday night, with a record women's crowd of 2,896 watching at Gustavus, St. Thomas held off the previously-unbeaten and No. 17-ranked Gustie women, 74-65, in a game that eventually could decide who wins or shares the conference championship. Click here for Mankato Free Press story.

Both Tommie teams sit alone in first place with five conference games to go in each race. But nobody in Purple is hanging Mission Accomplished banners yet -- too many landmines and hungry teams still to face.

Senior Kaitlin Langer contributed 32 points and 10 boards as the Tommie women moved to 19-0, one of 14 men's and women's teams in NCAA hoops still unbeaten.

St. Thomas has an overall schedule ranked in the top 40 nationally for difficulty, too. Sinn and Co. has now defeated four nationally-ranked teams, three away from home, with Langer averaging 22 points and nine boards in those contests.

"It was a fantastic setting, I give Gustavus a lot of credit," Sinn said of the loud and packed arena. "We talked to our players and told them 'This is why you practice all summer to get to play before a crowd like this and be a part of that energy and emotion.' We see games like this as like a test they take in the classroom. The only way you don't like taking tests is if you aren't prepared. We felt like we were prepared."

The Tommies women finished 30-1 two seasons ago and 26-4 last winter. Their focus this season has been to discover their strengths and any potential weaknesses to make a deeper postseason run.

St. Catherine -- a squad that nearly swept the Toms last season -- comes to Schoenecker this Saturday, so the challenges continue.

Tauer's squad will have a well-deserved bye this Saturday before next week's tough tests at Hamline and at home against Carleton.

"At this point, we're thrilled to get a few days to regroup after a grueling month where had 11 games in 31 days," Tauer said. "We battled against excellent teams and coaches, worked through several injuries to key players, and found different ways to win games."

The Tommie men's team graduated three starters and a couple of other key contributors from its NCAA championship squad. Tauer's 2016-17 team started 1-2 in the conference with rare back-to-back losses. But the Toms have scratched and clawed back up the standings with seven victories in a row and recently moved from fourth place to first in the MIAC race.

Wednesday's last-second home defeat of Gustavus, 59-57, was their fourth victory in eight days and made it 12 wins in their last 13 contests.

"This team has improved a tremendous amount the past seven weeks, and we're excited for the stretch run of the MIAC season," the coach added. "It's an outstanding conference with excellent student-athletes and phenomenal coaches. We have such dedicated assistant coaches who work tirelessly in preparation for our opponents. Every night out is a battle, and our players have been focused and selfless throughout this stretch. It's a joy to coach them."


Sweet Streaks

The Tommie women extended three long winning streaks in Wednesday's hard-fought victory:

  • 29 consecutive regular-season wins;
  • 25 consecutive victories against MIAC opponents;
  • 20 consecutive wins away from campus;
  • 16 wins in a row against the Gusties.

Also, the St. Thomas men are 10-1 in a 31-day span since New Year's Day, despite having a key player out of five of those games:

  • Grant Shaeffer missed three games to start January including a key road win at Bethel;
  • Ryan Boll was out at the end of the OT road win at Carleton and in the subsequent home loss to St. Olaf;
  • Michael Hannon was sick and missed Wednesday's close call against Gustavus.

Tauer's team extended an impressive streak of its own with Wednesday victory, the 19th consecutive home win over Gustavus. Since 2000, just one Gustie men's hoops team -- in the 2003 MIAC playoff finals -- has won at either the old or new Schoenecker. That GAC team went to to finish second nationally.

That's not to say the Gusties have been easy pickings. Wednesday was the third time in the last seven years alone the vistors from St. Peter watched a St. Thomas guard hit a clutch shot in the final moments to extend or win the game at Schoenecker:

  • In January 2011, Tyler Nicolai drained a trey in the last seconds to force overtime, and UST went on to win a league game in what would become an NCAA championship season;
  • In February 2015, the Tommies were on the ropes in the MIAC playoff semifinals but Conner Nord grabbed two offensive boards in the last 16 seconds and Marcus Alipate hit a jumper with :02 to go while falling down to tie the game and force OT, where UST advanced;
  • Wednesday after Gustavus rallied to a 57-57 tie with 29 seconds left, UST held for one shot, and Shaeffer sank a 12-footer in the lane.


Did You Know?

Before Wednesday, it's been 10 seasons since Tommie Men's Hoops won a home conference game without scoring 60 or more points. The 2006-07 Toms topped Carleton 51-41.

The UST women are ranked eighth nationally in both free-throw and field-goal percentage, and 11th in D-III 3-point proficiency. They made 17 of their first 18 free throws Wednesday before missing two in the final seconds of the close win.


Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working in his 23rd season at St. Thomas and 29th overall in the MIAC. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at [email protected]