SALEM, Va. — Steve Fritz has been coaching at St. Thomas for 31 seasons. He took a team to the NCAA Division III Final Four in 1994, but that trip ended without a championship.
The veteran coach of the Tommies got one more chance to win a title on Saturday afternoon at the Salem Civic Center, and this time, disappointment was nowhere to be found.
St. Thomas crushed Wooster 78-54 in the title game as the Tommies won their first championship in school history. Fritz walked into the postgame press conference still in a sling from the arm surgery he had earlier in the week.
He was also wearing the net around his neck.
“Don’t worry about me. I’m not in any pain today,” Fritz said.
No pain, but plenty of gain.
The Tommies, ranked eighth in the nation, completed a remarkable run to the title by shooting 54.2 percent from the field and having five players in double figures as they dismantled a Wooster team known for playing spectacular defense and executing at a high level on offense.
Fritz, who also played for St. Thomas before becoming an assistant and eventually the head coach, said it has always been a dream of his to win a title. Yet, it wasn’t something that was viewed as the only goal that mattered.
“It has never been an every day goal. I think the main goal is to run a good program, and we have done that with great kids,” Fritz said. “You have to be lucky and you have to play great to win a championship. We beat a very good basketball team today to win it.”
St. Thomas turned the momentum of the game by closing the first half on a blistering 29-12 run. The game was tied at 14 before the outburst and was not only fueled by great defense, but also by six 3-pointers as the Tommies went into halftime with a commanding 43-26 lead.
Bryan Wickliffe has played a huge role in the success of Wooster this season. So when the senior forward/center was asked about his career coming to an end, he had a difficult time finding the words to describe the feeling.
“It’s a terrible feeling. Terrible feeling,” Wickliffe said. “Words can’t describe what myself and the other seniors are feeling right now. This was it for us. It’s a terrible way to go out, but it was an awesome experience to play here. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing, except maybe win this last game.”
St. Thomas came into this game having rallied for a win in the second half 15 times this season. The Tommies didn’t have to worry about that problem this time, however, going into halftime with a comfortable lead. They never let the Fighting Scots get closer to 10 in the second half as they rolled to the championship.
St. Thomas shot 61.1 percent in the second half of its win over Wooster while forcing the Fighting Scots to shoot 44 percent in the final 20 minutes of action. Wooster did hold a 26-24 edge on the boards but the Tommies outscored Wooster 36-24 in the paint. The Fighting Scots turned the ball over 18 times while the Tommies had only nine turnovers in the win. Both teams were making their first appearances in a championship game.