Count out Tommies at your own risk

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A senior point guard such as Grant Shaeffer is a key ingredient for a championship team.
Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas 
 

It was a question on every MIAC men's basketball follower's mind.

Is this the year someone knocks off St. Thomas?

You don't typically bet against a defending national champion that's also won 11 straight conference titles, but the fact is the Tommies entered 2016-17 having lost five of their seven main rotational players, including two All-Region performers.

In a conference like the MIAC, it's tough to replace that talent and expect a simple transition over a 20-game league schedule.

And, as such, UST was sitting at 1-2 in the MIAC Dec. 10, having just lost at home to Hamline for the first time in 38 years and getting ready to take on unbeaten rival St. John's.

Then came a turning point.

UST blitzed SJU with 55 first-half points, hit 14 of 26 3-pointers and won, 82-69. The Tommies (16-4, 12-3) have won 12 of 13 games since and are in prime position for a 12th straight MIAC title.

"More than anything, I think it's just our guys, they trusted that there was not going to be any magic bullet," UST head coach John Tauer said. "We had to get better in every area of the game. We tried to be patient in the sense that we knew it wasn't going to happen overnight. But we also have a certain standard of excellence that we strive for that we're not going to compromise just because we're inexperienced or young or battling injuries."

To be clear, nothing is wrapped up yet. St. Thomas is two games up in the loss column on Bethel (11-5) and St. John's (10-5) – both teams it swept – with five games left. Tough tests remain this week against Hamline and Carleton, with a three-game week (at St. Olaf, St. Mary's, at Concordia) to follow.

Look no further than UST's game against Gustavus Adolphus last time out to prove parity in the MIAC, which means the potential for something crazy to happen in the last two weeks is there.

The Tommies needed Grant Shaeffer's buzzer-beating jumper to escape with a 59-57 win against a team that's now 5-11 in the league.

"I think the conference is as balanced as it's been 1 through 11," Tauer said. "As much as anything, I think the last week we've had off was a good time to regroup and get healthier. This stretch run, the five games we're playing, every team has something they're playing for."

Having a talented, experienced senior point guard like Shaeffer, who's been through this, is as key as anything. The game-winner Wednesday was his third go-ahead basket in the last three minutes and he finished with 25 points and five assists.

"If you look at Grant, it took him a little bit of time, I think, to get acclimated with playing with these guys," Tauer said. "What I've been most pleased about is I think he's really been able to focus on how best he can lead this team through ups and downs. I can't say enough about the job that he's done for us for four years."

That's why the question of St. Thomas reigning again was especially prevalent the first week of January. Shaeffer sprained his ankle and missed a Monday, Jan. 2 win over Gustavus with a showdown against then-first-place Bethel awaiting two days later.

And that's when we really knew this group of Tommies had championship potential. John Veil totaled 27 points and 12 assists, Ryan Boll added 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists and UST made a statement with an 83-74 win without Shaeffer.

After pulling out an overtime win against Carleton, Shaeffer returned, but Boll rolled an ankle against the Knights and missed a 64-56 loss to St. Olaf.

Come on, you can't expect even St. Thomas to win them all.

"I think this team's probably faced as much adversity as any team I've been around," Tauer said. "You never hope (an injury) happens, but at the same time, like anything, you have to turn it into a positive. I do think it showed all of our players that we have a chance to be a really good team if we trust one another and play unselfishly."

Shaeffer leads the team with 15.2 points and 5.0 assists per game, while Boll has become much more than a defensive stopper, averaging 14.5 points, up from 4.7 last year. Michael Hannon comes off the bench to add another scoring weapon. He's shooting 41.0 percent from 3-point range (50-122) and averaging 12.8 points.

Now healthy and on the verge of returning to the top 25, the defending champs won't be jumping up on anyone.

***

Langer and the Tommies do not want to watch another team clinch on their home court this year.
Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas

The St. Thomas women's basketball team gathered in its locker room the night of March 12 prior to an Elite Eight game at Schoenecker Arena.

But the eighth-ranked Tommies weren't playing.

Instead, they watched Wartburg beat Texas-Tyler and cut down the nets on UST's home court to celebrate a Final Four berth.

"To say that that didn't sting ... yeah ... but you also, in the back of your mind, store that away," St. Thomas coach Ruth Sinn said. "There's always a little motivation that we want to do better and go farther. Something was taken away from us, so how do we get it back?"

The Tommies might get an opportunity for redemption this year. With two weeks left in the regular season, St. Thomas is 21-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country.

Last Wednesday was about as close to a postseason feel as you can get during the conference schedule.

Unbeaten UST traveled to unbeaten Gustavus Adolphus for their only meeting of the year, with a major advantage in the MIAC championship race on the line.

"It's really unheard of," Sinn said. "With the exception of the last three years we've done a double round robin, so it would never physically have even been possible to be able to have that game. It was really exciting.

"Coming into that game, it was exactly what you talk to your team about why you play this great game. You play for games like that where you're going to be challenged and it's a great opponent and you're going to have to find out who you are and see what you're made of."

We already knew what reigning MIAC MVP Kaitlin Langer was made of, and she verified that Wednesday with 32 points and 10 rebounds in the Tommies' 75-69 win.

"She has done such a great job – her, and our whole team – of being very composed this year and understanding what we need as a team," Sinn said. "What is working, and how do we have to continue to attack and defend, according to what is working at the time and what the game plan is."

Langer is averaging 19.7 points and 8.4 rebounds and UST is also getting double-figures scoring from senior guard Gabby Zehrer (12.4), a welcome sight after she missed all but nine games last season with a torn ACL.

"We knew that she would be able to contribute with us, because we had seen it before," Sinn said. "We were very excited about adding her – with the experience that we had last year without her – into the rotation."

The team read Jay Bilas's book, "Toughness," this season – clearly an apt word to describe Zehrer, but also one the Tommies want to be defined as with the stretch run underway.

"Our motto this year has just been to own the moment," Sinn said. "Not get ahead of ourselves, but just really be where we're at and just own and be fully present."

Men's performers of the week

Brandyn Frelix helped will Bethany Lutheran to a 96-92 win over UW-Superior with 32 points on 9 of 13 shooting, eight rebounds and five assists. He was also 13-for-18 at the free-throw line.

Central's Pete Walker totaled 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting and added nine rebounds and six assists in a 91-86 win over Wartburg.

Last week's column featured Michael Scarlett, and you saw why in the Stags' pair of games. Scarlett went for 28 points apiece in wins over Caltech and Redlands, hitting 17 of 28 shots, including 7 of 14 3-pointers. Scarlett also went 15-for-16 at the charity stripe and averaged 6.5 rebounds and three assists.

A pair of 30-point performances went for naught: Daniel Rosenbaum put up 36 for Pomona-Pitzer in a 105-104 loss to La Verne, while Loras' Justin VanWambeke hit 30 in a 104-85 defeat at Wartburg.

Joey Hewitt scored 27 points for No. 2 Whitman in a 90-79 win over Pacific, hitting 4 of 9 3-pointers and also tallying three steals. The next night, JoJo Wiggins' go-ahead layup with 24 seconds left capped a 13-2 run for Whitman in the final 4:33 against Linfield to stay undefeated with a 67-65 victory.

"Without a doubt, that was the greatest win of our season," Whitman head coach Eric Bridgeland told sports information. "The guys showed unbelievable fight and trust in each other."

Women's performers of the week

Lizzy Swanson went for 33 points in North Central's 95-67 win over Northland, adding seven rebounds and five assists. Annabel Morrisroe chipped in 27 points, 13 boards and three assists for the Rams.

Katie Sommer's 24 points, including 5 of 6 3-point shooting, five assists and four rebounds help Wartburg beat Loras 88-83 despite Lauren Stanich's career-high 30 points off the bench for the Duhawks.

Gustavus bounced back Saturday against Hamline, 106-63, and got 25 points on 9-for-12 shooting from Miranda Rice, who also had six rebounds and six steals.

Bethel's Hannah Johnson put up 24 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in a pivotal 75-65 win over St. Benedict.

Samoe Jackson's 25 points on 9 of 14 shooting, six rebounds and two steals helped keep Puget Sound unbeaten in the Northwest Conference with a 76-64 win over Willamette.

Hidden gem of the week

Connor Head entered last week hitting just 53.4 percent of his free throws for the season (23-43). But he calmly knocked down a pair with 29 seconds left in overtime to deliver La Verne a 105-104 win against Pomona-Pitzer.


Nathan Ford

Nathan Ford is the digital sports editor at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He graduated from Wartburg College in 2015, where he covered Wartburg and Iowa Conference athletics in print and broadcast for four years. He began contributing to D3football.com in 2013.