|Ryan Saarela, center, is greeted by fellow starter Grant Shaeffer as St. Thomas and Elmhurst emptied the bench in the final minute of their second-round NCAA Tournament game on Saturday.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
By Nathan Ford
For as impressive as St. Thomas’ 11-year run atop the MIAC standings has been – a feat that’s difficult to overstate – there’s another streak the program has going that’s admirable in itself.
In fact, there’s a good chance the two are somewhat correlated.
Since 2007, no St. Thomas player has averaged more than 15 points. Eight years and counting.
This is a good thing? In the name of a balanced attack, yes.
“I think that’s by design,” UST head coach John Tauer said.
This year a four-headed monster is averaging double figures for the Tommies, led by senior guard Taylor Montero at 14.4 points per game. Guards Cortez Tillman (14.1), a senior, and Grant Shaeffer (14.0), a junior, follow closely, with senior forward Ryan Saarela at 12.8.
“Any one of them could score 25 on a given night, but I think what makes it easiest is that none of them really care who scores,” Tauer said.
And one of them did put up big numbers in some rather important games.
A career-high 25 points from Saarela got the NCAA Tournament started last Friday night in a 78-66 win over Central. The following night, he had 19 points and 14 boards in a 93-81 victory over Elmhurst.
But still, Saarela will be quick to tell you he wasn’t out there putting the team on his back.
“My teammates, guards put me in a good position and got me the ball in places where I could score,” he said. “We just had good matchups and took advantage of them.”
“We really don’t care who scores how many points,” the 6-6 big man expounded. “All we care about is winning. For us to be good, we have to buy into that.”
It’s certainly been a winning formula for the Tommies, who feel they can collect victories in a variety of ways against myriad playing styles. The second-round game against Elmhurst, for example, started out as a slugfest but turned into an up-and-down game in which five Tommies reached double-figure scoring.
That game might pale in comparison to the tempo of UST’s Sweet 16 contest against constantly running and pressing Whitman.
|Taylor Montero went 9-for-15 from the floor, 4-for-7 from 3-point range for St. Thomas in the tournament's first two rounds.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
“They’re incredibly explosive,” said Tauer, a friend of Whitman coach Eric Bridgeland. “They’re deep. They pressure. They have a very clear-cut identity and they adhere to it as well as anybody we play all year.”
The Tommies traveled to Walla Walla, Wash., a season ago and came away with a 96-86 win. Montero had 20 points in that one, Tillman 18. UST had 20 turnovers, just six in a second half in which it outscored Whtiman 55-37.
This year St. Thomas was tops in the MIAC with 9.1 turnovers per game, a stat they’d love to come close to replicating Friday night.
“We think if we can take care of the ball, limit turnovers, we should be in good shape,” Saarela said.
He and the other seniors, in particular, are excited to have another week of practice. The last two years they didn’t get this opportunity, following a shocking first-round exit to Northwestern in 2015 and a defeat to Augustana the year prior.
“After last year, it just left a bitter taste in our mouth losing like that in the first round,” Saarela said. “But we really wanted to come out and get the first one out of the way. We didn’t want to end it like we did last year, so it was just extra motivation.”
This class has experienced a deep run in the tournament, too. St. Thomas was a Final Four participant their freshman year. Getting back to the second weekend for the first time since then wasn’t necessarily relieving, but, as Tauer calls it, joyous.
“They’ve seen the highs and they’ve seen the lows,” he said. “Some of that is we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success the last several years. The expectations are high, there’s no question about it. I think the guys were very excited, probably as excited as I’ve seen them in three years after the game on Saturday night.”
Tauer preaches playing with urgency, a concept the seniors have grasped. It’s win or go home in this tournament, and for them, win or be done forever.
That shows up in their play.
“They’re so veteran and so poised,” Tauer said. “When you talk about senior leadership, yeah, you hope they step up.
“I thought Ryan Saarela had two of the best games of his career. He’s entirely capable of doing that.”
So are the other three leading scorers, and that’s what’s makes this team so dangerous.