|The Oles, from Minnesota, went to Wisconsin to defeat two teams from Ohio and advance to the Sweet 16.
St. Olaf athletics photo
By Josh Smith
A year ago, the St. Olaf men’s basketball team celebrated its first berth into the NCAA Tournament. And even though the Oles lost their first-round game last season, reaching the tournament was a big step for the program.
St. Olaf has built off that experience this season, picking up postseason wins over Ohio Wesleyan and Defiance to reach the Sweet 16.
“When you go into a tournament, and maybe you aren’t used to being in the tournament, the excitement is huge,” St. Olaf coach Dan Kosmoski said. “I think we came back this year with a better understanding.”
The coach spoke with his players the night before the tournament got underway and asked what they learned from last year’s first-round exit. Kosmoski said there was an emphasis on starting strong. And while the Oles began a little slow in each of last weekend’s victories, they settled in quickly.
“Even though our first halves probably weren’t the best in either game, I think the guys were ready to play,” Kosmoski said. “I think being back in the tournament was a huge motivation.”
The coach said the players handled their nerves better this time around also.
“The practices were pretty loose,” Kosmoski said. “The expectations of this team this year is every game they go in, they expect to win. This is a very unselfish team, a very close team and they’re very confident in what they can do.”
St. Olaf shot 70 percent from the floor in the second half to earn a 90-78 win over Ohio Wesleyan and secure the program’s first tournament victory.
But the team’s celebration was brief.
“You can’t mask emotions, and I don’t expect my players to suppress those emotions,” Kosmoski said. “No question they were excited. But after four or five minutes in the locker room, things settled in a quick way because they wanted to get up and see who they were going to play.
|Ben Figini has been a difference-maker for the Oles this year, to the tune of 16.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.
St. Olaf athletics photo
“We have a sign in our locker room that says, ‘Yesterday ended last night,’” the coach continued. “You have to clear everything up and get ready for the next game.”
Ben Figini scored 18 points for the second night in the row and made the game-clinching free throw late in the Oles’ 68-63 win over Defiance.
In addition to sending St. Olaf to the Sweet 16, the victory marked a new program record of 23 wins in a season.
“Coming off this weekend, everyone is on Cloud 9. It’s such an experience. I don’t think a lot of people saw us getting this far,” Figini said. “Everyone is just excited for the ride.”
Figini, who transferred to St. Olaf this season from Division II Minnesota State-Moorhead, did not get to experience last year’s trip to the tournament. But he said the players who were around last year have offered guidance.
“It means so much to these guys,” said Figini, who’s only other postseason experience came his freshman season while he was red-shirting at Moorhead. “I’m just happy to be part of it for these seniors.”
St. Olaf’s next test will be Marietta in a Sectional matchup at Augustana Friday.
Figini said focusing on starting strong will continue to be a key for the Oles in addition to playing stingy defense.
“Everyone is going to give 100 percent because we’re making history for the school right now, and we want to keep it going,” Figini said.
Although the Sweet 16 is new territory for St. Olaf, the team believes they fit in with the rest of the remaining field.
“I think anybody who’s in the Sweet 16, anything is possible. You have to believe that,” Kosmoski said. “I think our team has a lot of confidence.”
Figini echoed that confidence. He believes his team can play beyond the Sweet 16.
“I think we have the potential to go all the way. I really do,” Figini said. “If we play our best – swing the ball, share it – there is no team we can’t beat. We match up great with a lot of teams.”
“We’re excited. We’re ready to go,” he added. “It’s going to be a fun ride.”