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SALEM, Va. — After center Tommy Hannon put up an uncontested basket with 9:20 left in the game, the No. 1-ranked St. Thomas men’s basketball team seemed to have the game in control with a 56-44 lead. However, unranked Mary Hardin-Baylor’s defensive intensity picked up, and the Tommies couldn’t cope.
Mary Hardin-Baylor used a 30-11 run during the final nine minutes to sprint past St. Thomas 74-67 in an NCAA Division III Final Four game at the Salem Civic Center Arena Saturday. The Crusaders will face No. 2-ranked Amherst (Mass.) in the NCAA championship game April 7.
“There’s no way to take the sting away,” coach John Tauer said. “Obviously, we’re very disappointed.”
The Tommies (30-2) weren’t able to hold onto a second-half lead as large as 14. The Crusaders (27-5) will make their first appearance in the title game, continuing their best run in program history.
“I thought we built a nice lead and played pretty well,” Tauer said. “Today, we just couldn’t hold on to it.”
Hannon finished his career with a double-double, posting 15 points and 15 rebounds. Fellow senior Will DeBerg finished with a team-high 21 points, going 5-for-8 from 3-point land.
For the most part, both teams matched up quite well. One deciding factor was the 17 Tommie turnovers that resulted in 25 Crusader points. “The Cru” also went 27-for-34 from the free-throw line.
“There’s lots of ways to slice how this game went down,” Tauer said with teary eyes. “Bottom line, they beat us.”
In an up-tempo first half featuring three lead changes and five ties, both teams jostled for momentum.
The Crusaders opened a lead as large as seven midway through the first half, but the Tommies, spurred by a 5-0 run by Hannon, went into halftime up 38-33.
Guard Erik Tengwall, who had eight first-half points, hit a couple of big baskets to keep St. Thomas close.
“That’s how I like to play,” Tengwall said, finishing with 11 points. “We were in a groove, and things felt good in the first half.”
The stats backed up that premise: St. Thomas shot a crisp 57.1 percent from the field and went 5-for-10 from behind the arc. The Tommies also held Crusader wing Thomas Orr, who had 28 points against St. Mary’s (Md.) in the national quarterfinals, in check with no points.
Tommies fail to hold off surging-Crusaders in second half
The Tommies opened the second half with an 18-11 run during the first 10 minutes. Much of the run came from high-low action from Hannon and center Conner Nord. St. Thomas finished with a 24-20 edge in the paint on the night.
Up until the 9:20 mark of the second half, the majority of Mary Hardin-Baylor’s points came from drives to the basket. The Crusaders started making jumpers, and the Tommies were not quick to react.
“(The Crusaders are) streaking shooters,” Tauer said. “We knew that going in.”
St. Thomas seemed to get away from its game plan, trying to react to Mary Hardin-Baylor’s shooting surge.
“I don’t think we used the screens as well at the end,” Hannon said on a night where he eclipsed 600 career rebounds. “We started rushing it a bit as the game was getting close. They really adjusted and fought over screens well.”
It was all too similar for the Crusaders. In its win against St. Mary’s (Md.), Mary Hardin-Baylor came from a double-digit deficit to advance to the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance.
The Crusaders went on to put the clamps on St. Thomas’ best shooter, DeBerg.
“I’ve been used to it all year,” DeBerg said. “Normally when they guard me that tight, other guys are open. Credit to (the Crusaders), they did a good job.”
The Tommies held a 62-59 lead with 2:31 left. That would change as forward Zach Riedeman, who would foul out of the game and finish with eight points, fouled Crusader wing Cory Meals on a made 3-pointer. He completed the four-point play, giving the Crusaders a one-point advantage, their first lead since the 6:11 mark of the first half.
After exchanging free throws, DeBerg created a steal and went coast-to-coast, laying in the easy layup, putting St. Thomas up 67-66 with 38 seconds left.
The Tommies struggled defending guard James Allen, who finished with a team-high 19 points, as he drove the lane and was fouled by Hannon, his fifth and final. Allen hit both free throws, putting the Crusaders up 68-67 with 20 seconds left.
After a Tommie turnover and two more Crusader free throws, St. Thomas was down three with the ball and only 12 seconds left.
Forward Noah Kaiser, playing his last game as a Tommie, put up a 3-pointer which hit the front iron and went out. Mary Hardin-Baylor rebounded the ball, hit its free throws and moved on to Atlanta for a spot in the national championship game.
“We got a little discombobulated on that last possession,” Tauer said of the Kaiser 3-point attempt. “It was a wide open look. He hit the same shot against Calvin (Mich.) last week. He’s a good 3-point shooter, and we were fine with that shot.”
The Tommies finished shooting 57 percent from the field and 38 percent from behind the arc. The Crusaders shot 36 percent from the field and 35 percent from behind the arc.
Forward John Nance added three points and seven rebounds in his final game for St. Thomas.
Although visibly distraught, Tauer said he wouldn’t trade this group of players for anything.
“This is a tough one to swallow,” Tauer said, holding back tears. “We always say, ‘We win as a team, we lose as a team.’ I went out with these guys 32 times this year; they are unbelievable. The outcome just didn’t go our way today.”
Ross Schreck can be reached at email@example.com.