LINCOLN, Neb. - Assisting on 22 of 30 made field goals and knocking down 12 three-pointers, thirteenth-ranked Tommie men's basketball defeated UW-La Crosse 80-66 in Friday night's first round of the NCAA Division III Men's Basketball Tournament.
"We are thrilled to get a victory in the national tournament," said head coach John Tauer. "Our guys came out with great energy. La Crosse is a great program and we knew it was going to be a battle. I thought our guys played tough and together. We shared the ball well and more than anything, helped each other on defense. When we play like that, it's fun to watch."
Sophomore Ryan Lindberg poured in a game-high 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting, including 6-of-11 from three-point range to lead the Tommies offensively. Freshman All-MIAC point guard Anders Nelson ran things smoothly, amassing 11 assists and eight rebounds.
"It was a lot of fun," added Lindberg. "We talked a lot all week about getting kick out threes. We got good looks tonight and it was great to see the ball go in."
With the win, St. Thomas improves to 23-4 on the year and advances to Saturday's second round to take on host and top-ranked Nebraska Wesleyan.
Friday night, the Tommies came out on a mission and would never trail. GT Johnson came out to score back-to-back layups on the first two possessions to spark a lights-out first half for the Purple. St. Thomas would go on to shoot 56.7-percent (17-30) from the floor in the opening 20 minutes, including an 8-for-13 mark from three.
Holding a narrow one-point lead (11-10) midway through the first half, the Tommies opened things up with an 11-0 run to take a 22-10 lead thanks to some sharp shooting from the outside. St. Thomas started the game 5-for-6 from three to stretch the lead in the early going. From there, the Tommies would lead by as many at 15 points and take a 12-point lead (45-33) into halftime.
It is often said the first five minutes of the second half are some of the most important of the game. That proved true Friday night, as the Tommies opened the second half with six straight points to turn a 12-point lead to 18 (51-33).
Two minutes later, the lead hit 20 points (56-36) on a Michael Hannon three. The Eagles answered, chipping away to narrow the gap to 16 points, but Lindberg answered with his own five-point run on a three from the corner and a layup in transition to push the lead back to 21 points (62-41).
The Eagles chipped away, but the lead never dipped below 12 points, as the Tommies secured the 14-point victory and a trip to the second round.
St. Thomas shot 53.6% from the field (30-56) and 44.4% from behind the arc (12-27). The Tommies lost the rebound battle 31-28, but forced 13 turnovers compared to just seven of their own.
Joining Lindberg in double-figure scoring were seniors Connor Bair and Michael Hannon. Bair finished with 16 points on an efficient 7-of-11 shooting, while Hannon added 11 points thanks in large part to a perfect 3-for-3 mark from deep.
"It was fun to be out there with these guys," mentioned Bair. "I thought we really played tenacious on both ends of the floor and that is what it is going to take again tomorrow night."
The Tommies will take on top-ranked Nebraska Wesleyan Saturday night at 7:00pm.