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With 1:38 remaining in the first half and the St. Thomas men’s basketball team trailing by three, guard Will DeBerg had only taken one shot from the field: a missed 3-pointer.
Like any good shooter, DeBerg wouldn’t say “no” to an open shot. And St. Thomas was fortunate he kept shooting, as DeBerg hit six of his next seven from behind the arc.
“I made that (3-pointer) right before halftime,” DeBerg said of his shooting performance. “In the second half, my teammates found me.”
DeBerg’s 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting propelled No. 1-seeded St. Thomas to its sixth MIAC playoff tournament championship in the last seven seasons, dismantling No. 3-seeded Augsburg 92-65 in front of a raucous crowd Sunday at Schoenecker Arena.
The victory was St. Thomas’ (26-1) 12th MIAC playoff title. The 27-point win was the largest margin in MIAC title game history. The Tommies shot 60 percent from behind the arc.
It was an afternoon full of milestones, maybe none bigger than center Tommy Hannon’s uncontested layup with four minutes left. Those two points gave Hannon 1,001 career points, making him the eighth Tommie to cross the 1,000-point plateau.
Hannon, who finished with a game-high 22 points, said he didn’t realize how close he was getting to the record until he heard a specific voice yell out his progress from the crowd.
“I honestly didn’t know until I heard my cousin from the stands yell out, ‘one more point,’” Hannon said.
All ended well for the Tommies in this game, but the scoreline wasn’t indicative to how the game looked in the first half.
St. Thomas began the game on a 5-0 run, using its size underneath, but the Auggies were in the championship game for a reason. They didn’t back down.
Hannon scored seven of the Tommies’ first 13 points, giving his team a five-point edge seven minutes in. The Auggies started to find their stride, going on a 6-0 run to give them their first lead at 14-13 and forcing a St. Thomas timeout. Augsburg’s hyper fan base appeared to be feeding the team a large part of its momentum.
Just over halfway through the first half, Auggie guard Parker Hines drove underneath the basket, and tried to throw the ball off a Tommie leg out of bounds. His pass went through DeBerg’s legs and landed in the hands of guard Tyler Schmidt behind the 3-point line. He didn’t miss, giving Augsburg its largest lead of the game at 25-20.
The Tommies and Auggies continued to battle back and forth for the next six minutes, trading baskets on both ends of the floor. During that stretch, Auggie center Dan Kornbaum, who finished with a double-double (20 points, 10 rebounds) scored eight straight. He’d finish with 12 points in the first half.
With Augsburg clinging to a three-point lead with 3:49 left in the opening half, the Tommies would go on a 9-0 run to finish the half, capped off by guard Erik Tengwall’s 3-pointer as the halftime buzzer blared. The Tommies went into halftime with their largest lead of the first half at 41-35. St. Thomas and Augsburg changed leads six times in the opening 20 minutes.
St. Thomas shot 57.7 percent from the field in the first half.
“The three’s we got at the end of the first half really got the energy going,” coach John Tauer said. “Tonight, our shooting got us more energy than our defense and that led to some transition baskets.”
The second half began much like the first half ended, with St. Thomas shooting at a very business-like clip. St. Thomas began the second half on a 20-8 run with help from DeBerg’s three 3-pointers in a four-minute span. The Tommies’ five-point halftime lead mushroomed to a 20-point lead with 11 minutes left.
Hannon called DeBerg “the best shooter in the country.”
“He got hot,” Hannon said. “You can’t stop him when he’s hot.”
From that point on, it was all St. Thomas. Augsburg appeared deflated for most of the second half, possibly brought on by its emotional MIAC playoff semifinal victory in Moorhead Friday night. A quick turnaround after a long trip did not bode well for the Auggies on this day. It was Augsburg’s fourth game in nine days.
St. Thomas would outscore Augsburg 51-30 in the second half to claim the 92-65 victory. The 92 points tied a MIAC playoff title game record for most points scored (St. John’s, 2001). The Tommies shot 58 percent from the floor for the game.
Hannon said the team, which limited Kornbaum to eight points in the second half, did “a much better job” guarding the 6-foot-9-inch junior.
“They really looked to focus on him in their offense so we tried to limit his touches in the second half,” Hannon said. “We tried to confuse him and force him into tough shots.”
Augsburg finished the day shooting 44.1 percent from the floor, but were out-rebounded 35-25. The Auggies still have a chance of receiving an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.
Tengwall added nine points, guard Taylor Montero chipped in eight points along with seven each from center Conner Nord and guard John Nance.
The victory gave the Tommies the MIAC’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament starting next week. With a different playoff format this year, the No. 1-ranked Tommies are expected to receive a first-round bye next week, meaning their next game would be March 9 likely at home.
With the long layoff, DeBerg said the team can use this game as momentum, but must take each game “one half at a time.”
“We know we’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” DeBerg said. “Every practice we have to get better and we’ll just go from there.”
With the Division III men’s basketball tournament spread out over 41 days instead of the traditional 19, Tauer said the team’s energy won’t dissipate over the break.
“Our momentum comes from our (team’s) desire to be great,” Tauer said. “This team trusts in one another and they love to play together.”
St. Thomas will learn its playoff fate at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow in the NCAA selection show.
Ross Schreck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.