Tommies are all about teamwork
St. Thomas returns to national semifinals for first time since '94
Tyler Nicolai is the leading scorer for St. Thomas, but he isn’t worried about pouring in a ton of points night in and night out.
Teamwork is what the Tommies are all about and it’s why they are in the NCAA Division III semifinals for the first time since 1994. They will square off against Middlebury at 8 p.m. ET Friday night at the Salem Civic Center in Virginia.
“Being unselfish with the ball is a huge part of our team’s success,” Nicolai said. “Any of our starters could be the high scorer in a game and we have even had guys coming off the bench lead us in scoring a couple of times. We have so many unselfish players who only really care about winning.”
Nicolai isn't kidding. St. Thomas loves sharing the ball. It’s why the team has tallied 514 assists on the season, with eight players dishing out at least 20 on the season. Nicolai has 99 and is averaging 14.6 points per outing.
Senior guard Alex Healy leads the team in assists with 102 while senior guard Teddy Archer has racked up 94 assists. Junior center Tommy Hannon has 57 assists.
Healy is averaging 12.9 points per game while Hannon is dropping in 12.2 ppg. The Tommies are putting up 73.2 points per outing and giving up 64.2. They are shooting 49.6 percent as a team and average only 11.2 turnovers per game.
“In recent seasons, we have shot about 50 percent from the field and have averaged only about 10 turnovers, so ball movement and balance are important elements of our game,” St. Thomas head coach Steve Fritz said. “You don’t get to this point of the postseason without having people buy into what you are doing, offensively and defensively. With a veteran team like ours, where we have five seniors contributing in key roles, they bring a sense of urgency at this time of the season.”
The eighth-ranked Tommies are coming off of a dominating 72-56 win against Augustana, marking the second consecutive game they have beaten a top 10 team and it was also their third win over a conference champion in the tournament.
St. Thomas took control early, racing out to a 20-8 advantage, and it shot 53 percent from the floor while forcing 19 turnovers. The Tommies rang up 15 assists in the win.
“We like to apply pressure on defense by having several different weapons on the court,” Fritz said. “We have some athletic players who can shoot from the outside or drive to the basket. If teams try to help on defense, we hope to find the open man.”
The Tommies played one of their best games of the season last Saturday in a sectional final win over the Vikings. The victory came on the heels of a stunning 66-64 win against defending national champion Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the Round of 16. Nicolai made a layup with three seconds remaining to seal the deal.
“We never let them into the game,” Fritz said. “We know we beat two pretty good teams in Point and Augustana over two days, so our confidence is high. But all four teams here are playing with confidence because they all came through good regionals.”
Nicolai said it was a thrill to knock off the defending national champion along the tourney trail, although that doesn’t mean the Tommies can ease up on the gas pedal as they head to Virginia as the only team west of Chicago to make the Final Four.
“It’s going to take efforts like our last two games to win in Salem,” Nicolai said. “We need to get off to a good start on Friday and keep attacking the whole game. Our team is built on aggressive defense and taking teams out of their comfort zone, which will be essential to winning this weekend.”
The Tommies have a 28-3 record and the victory total is the second highest in school history. St. Thomas is on a 10-game win streak and it is determined to hang its hat on good teamwork and great defense to chase down a championship.
But there is also a hint of motivation of that stems from the disappointment of last season’s tournament run. The Tommies were ranked No. 3 in the nation heading into the postseason and was stunned in a 73-71 loss to Anderson in the opening round.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s something I think about a lot for motivation, but I guess it may be somewhere in the back of my mind,” Nicolai said. “A lot of people believed we were going be a disappointment in the tournament this year, and I think that has motivated us more than anything else."