SALEM, Va. — There were still 50 seconds left on the clock in the NCAA Division III national championship game Saturday afternoon but St. Thomas senior guard Tyler Nicolai was already letting the thrill of being a champion sink in.
He leaped into the air during a timeout and hugged several of his teammates while wearing a smile that said it all.
And when the game was finally over, when this remarkable march to a title had reached its conclusion with an easy 78-54 victory punctuated with confetti exploding into the air and showering the Tommies during their celebration at mid-court of the Salem Civic Center, Nicolai took time to reflect on what the moment meant to him.
This is what dreams coming true is all about, and for Nicolai, a senior who has poured his heart and soul into four seasons at the school, this moment on a weekend afternoon in mid-March will stay with him for the rest of his life.
“It’s unbelievable,” Nicolai said. “Everyone worked so hard for this. To come out knowing I had won my final game is something not many players can say. It’s awesome.”
Nicolai is considered one of the top players in the nation, and he was determined to help his team complete its rise to the top.
He certainly didn’t have his best game, scoring 11 points on 3 of 12 shooting, but that is where good teammates join the equation.
Four other players scored in double figures for the eighth-ranked Tommies (30-3), including 16-point performances from John Nance and Tommy Hannon. That balanced effort, combined with a spectacular defensive effort, carried St. Thomas to its first championship in school history.
St. Thomas shot 54.2 percent from the floor in the win.
Nicolai, the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four and the team‘s leading scorer at 14.7 points per game, said having others step up helped ease the pressure off of his shoulders.
“Oh yeah, I didn’t have my best game,” Nicolai said. “I didn’t do much at all tonight, but the other guys played so well. It made my job easier.”
This climb to the mountain top of DIII basketball was not easy.
The Tommies were tested along the tournament trail, surviving a thrilling showdown against defending national champion Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the Sweet 16 (66-64) and taking down powerhouse Augustana (Ill.) in the quarterfinal round with a 72-56 win.
So when St. Thomas was knocked back on its heels in the first five minutes of the game, falling behind 11-2 after Justin Hallowell drilled a 3-pointer, the last thing in the world the Tommies were going to do was panic.
Instead, they clamped down on defense, limiting Wooster (31-3) to just one field goal in the final 13 minutes of the first half and outscoring the fifth-ranked Fighting Scots 29-12 to take a commanding 43-26 into halftime.
Intense pressure turned the tide for the Tommies, who swarmed any Wooster player who had the ball and forced 11 turnovers in the opening half and 18 total in the game. St. Thomas scored 37 points off of those miscues.
“We don’t have great size, and if we can’t lead the way with our press, we won’t have success on defense,” St. Thomas head coach Steve Fritz said. “I thought our press got us going. We felt like we had an edge in foot speed and it ended up working out for us today.”
Wooster shot just 40.9 percent from the floor, and while the Fighting Scots closed the gap to 46-36 in the second half, they ran out of magic. A night earlier they had rallied from a 17-point deficit to defeat Williams in a national semifinal. But like their previous two trips to the Final Four, this one ended in heartbreak as well.
Ian Franks scored 22 points to lead the Fighting Scots, a performance you would expect out of an All-American, but no one else scored in double figures.
“St. Thomas played a great game,” Wooster head coach Steve Moore said. “They have an outstanding basketball team and deserve to be national champions. But our guys battled hard as they have all year, and I’m proud of their accomplishments.”
Late during the regular season, St. Thomas suffered a 67-61 loss to Carleton on the road. It was the last time the Tommies would lose a game. They ended the year on a 12-game win streak and as the last team standing in DIII hoops.
When Nicolai arrived on campus as a freshman, he had no idea his career would end this way. Sure, he dreamed of the moment as a child but to have it actually happen is something that nearly left him speechless.
“I never thought things would end up this way when I got to college,” Nicolai said. “To get here and win it is amazing. There is no better way to go out. It’s an unbelievable accomplishment.”
Fritz is thankful he had a player like Nicolai, not to mention five other seniors who helped make this day possible for the Tommies.
“To have that kind of experience in the lineup really paid off,” Fritz said. “We’ve been through a lot of tough games, and we would certainly not be here today without our seniors.”