Backups play key role in title game
Nance led St. Thomas bench that produced 24 points
SALEM, Va. -- John Nance hasn’t started a game all season for St. Thomas, although he does average roughly 16 minutes per game off the bench.
Still, to think Nance would steal the spotlight in the NCAA Division III national championship game of all places seemed to be as unlikely as a fairy tale coming to life.
But there was the sophomore guard on Saturday afternoon at the Salem Civic Center, playing basketball as if he had been a star all year. Nance torched fifth-ranked Wooster for 16 points and played a pivotal role in leading the eighth-ranked Tommies to a 78-54 win and their first national title.
“The atmosphere here really got me going, especially with the Wooster fans being as loud as they were” Nance said. “I just tried to come off the bench and play at the same level as the starters. It’s something I’ve worked on doing all year.”
Nance seemed to thrive under the pressure of playing for a title. At one point in the first half, with his team holding a 22-16 advantage, Nance got the ball in his hands and launched up a 3-pointer. He was off-balance on the shot and even had a hand in his face. But he was able to get the ball to go down.
Nance finished with two treys in the win, was 3 of 5 from the field overall and hit eight of his nine attempts from the free-throw line in 30 minutes of work.
“I’ve been playing with more confidence during the second half of the season,” Nance said. “I’ve tried to be more aggressive and always put myself in a position to be ready to shoot.”
Nance probably took a few fans by surprise, and maybe even the Fighting Scots (31-3). But his head coach, Steve Fritz, who has been at the helm of the program for 31 seasons, said the play of Nance on the game’s biggest stage wasn’t really a surprise at all.
“The effort he played with has been there all year,” Fritz said. “When he starts hitting free throws and knocking down 3-pointers, it’s a bonus. He is such a great athlete. We also have other guys off the bench that can step up at anytime. We believe we have more than just five starters.”
St. Thomas (29-3) finished with 24 points from its bench, which played a pivotal role in the outcome. The Tommies shot 54.2 percent as a team and Nance shared high-scoring honors with teammate Tommy Hannon.
Nance did more than just light up the scoreboard though. He also defended Wooster star Ian Franks and made it difficult for the senior guard to get good shots off. Franks finished with 22, but those points were tough to come by.
Nance came up with two steals, including one early in the first half when he got the ball and dished it off to Hannon for a layup that cut the St. Thomas deficit to 11-7.
The fact that Nance usually guards star teammate Tyler Nicolai in practice helped prepare him to rise to the occasion in a championship game setting.
“I try to guard Tyler every day in practice,” Nance said. “It helped me do a good job of getting pressure on Franks.”
Nance only averaged 5.3 points per game this season, but with several players graduating, he knows it will be his turn to step up and be a leader. His performance in the national championship game has certainly prepared him for the challenge that awaits.
“It’s definitely going to motivate me to play even better next year,” Nance said. “I want to be a great leader like Tyler and I have to do a good job of getting the younger players ready to go for next season.”