Tommies steal momentum, semifinal
St. Thomas grabs lead late, gets past Middlebury in semis
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SALEM, Va. -- Tommy Hannon wanted to make a play, and he picked an ideal moment to rise to the occasion for St. Thomas in the NCAA Division III semifinals.
He stole a pass and took off down the floor for layup, the shot tilting the momentum back in favor of the Tommies and giving them a slim three-point lead (55-52) against Middlebury with 2:29 to play in thrilling national semifinal Friday night at the Salem Civic Center.
For Hannon, a junior center who is one of the team’s top scorers and the leading rebounder for the Tommies, the play served as a difference maker in a hard-fought battle against the Panthers, the second-ranked team in the nation.
The Tommies survived the grueling battle 59-57 and will play Wooster for the national championship at 3 p.m. ET Saturday.
“They had been running that play the whole game, and we went over it in practice this week,” Hannon said. “They got a little lackadaisical passing the ball, I took a chance and got the steal. It really lifted our spirits and got the momentum going for us.”
Eighth-ranked St. Thomas (29-3) never lost the lead again, although they had to survive a desperation 3-pointer by Nolan Thompson with just seconds remaining. The ball bounced off the rim as time ran out.
Thompson was the person you would expect to take a shot in that situation. He came into the game with 40 treys on the year, the most on the team, but the sophomore guard just couldn’t get the ball to go down.
“I looked up at the clock and there were only five seconds left,” Thompson said. “I created some space and the ball fell short. I can’t let that happen. That is something I need to work on for next year.”
St. Thomas was down 50-43 with 8;19 to play, but what you have to remember is that this is a team that has been tested on more than one occasion during its tournament run. The Tommies edged defending national champion Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the Round of 16 and took down Augustana (Ill.) in the Quarterfinals.
“Our guys didn’t want to go home,” St. Thomas head coach Steve Fritz said. “I could see that look in their eyes. We kept working hard and we found a way to win the game.”
It took a team effort to get the job done. Tyler Nicolai scored 15 points to pave the way, although he had to earn every point the got against a taller Middlebury squad. Hannon finished with 11 points while Brady Ervin clicked for 10.
The Tommies shot 45.7 percent from the floor and limited the Panthers to 42 percent shooting as it earned the right to play for its first national championship in school history.
“It’s a thrill to be in this position,” Fritz said. “They have such a great defense, especially with their pressure, and we couldn’t get into a flow the whole game. We just had to hang in there and create opportunities.”
And that is exactly what St. Thomas did. It led 32-25 at halftime but it could never quite put away the Panthers (28-2) until the end.
“We play well as a team,” Nicolai said. “We have a lot of guys who can step up at any given time and I felt like we were able to stay aggressive and hit big shots when we needed them. Nothing came easy but it feels good to be moving on.”
It was a different story in the Middlebury locker room. The Panthers have recently emerged as a contender at the national level and were making their fourth appearance in the tournament.
But despite having four players in double figures, including 12 by Thompson, it simply ran out of magic on this night.
Still, even with the sting of defeat still burning, the Panthers head home with nothing to hang their heads about.
“It has certainly been a dream,” Middlebury head coach Jeff Brown said. “We have come a long way with our program and it’s a great feeling to be the coach of this basketball team. The guys have worked hard and we’ve enjoyed playing deep into March. I’m proud of their effort. Unfortunately, we fell a little short tonight.”