Physicality is part of basketball. Saturday’s NCAA tournament second-round game between No. 1 St. Thomas and No. 22 Wheaton College (Ill.) may have redefined the term.
Center Tommy Hannon’s 10th career double-double (18 points and 10 rebounds) lifted the Tommies past the Thunder 68-58 in a game that saw 49 combined fouls and two technical fouls.
“I’ve never been a part of a game with that many fouls,” Hannon said. “If a team wants to make it a physical football game, we can do that, too.”
The win advances St. Thomas (28-1) to the Sweet 16 against No. 14 Calvin College (Mich.). The Tommies will host the Knights at 7 p.m., March 16 at Schoenecker Arena.
The Tommies expected a battle from the get-go, after being held to their lowest point total since Feb. 13. Unlike its opening round game against Aurora (Ill.), the Tommies brought the defensive intensity early on.
“All week we said we had to come out fired up,” forward Zach Riedeman said. “I think we did a good job of pressuring them outside and inside tonight.”
The Thunder appeared ready for the challenge: on the road, in the NCAA tournament, facing the top-ranked team in the country backed by its energized crowd.
“They come from one of the best conferences in the country,” coach John Tauer said. “We knew we were going to see a good, really tough, physical team.”
The final score may have been within 10 points, but Wheaton never garnered enough momentum to gain any lead on the night.
The Tommies used strong ball movement early to hold the Thunder at bay. Riedeman made a layup off a pass from guard Erik Tengwall to give the Tommies a 15-8 lead seven minutes in. Guard John Nance converted on a transition layup of his own at the 9:28 mark to put the Tommies ahead 25-13, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
Coming off the bench, guard Taylor Montero provided some timely bench scoring, nailing a corner 3-pointer for a 34-17 edge.
Riedeman, who finished with 11 points, said the Tommies executed their game plan well throughout the night.
“If we had a smaller guy on us, we were going to take them to the rack,” Riedeman said. “You put any of our guys in any situation, they could hit the three or post up.”
St. Thomas took a 37-25 lead into halftime, but were held scoreless for the last 4:19 of the first half.
“(Wheaton’s) defense was stellar tonight,” Tauer said. “We knew they were going to come out and pressure us. They probably pressured us more than any team we’ve seen this season.”
St. Thomas forced 13 first-half turnovers and shot a crisp 52.4 percent from the floor in the opening 20 minutes.
Wheaton, which won its first-round matchup with St. Norbert after trailing by 14 points at halftime, came out with a surge, pulling within eight points just five minutes into the second half and silencing the crowd.
But every run Wheaton made, St. Thomas countered. The Tommies maintained a lead as large as 16 and as small as nine for the first 16 minutes of the second half, utilizing quick hands and forcing nine second-half turnovers.
Questionable decisions from two of Wheaton’s starters helped St. Thomas along. Some Thunder players fouled out of the game with over five minutes remaining.
With 3:10 left in the contest, Wheaton pulled within six after forcing a turnover.
With momentum hanging in the balance, Hannon grabbed a demonstrative rebound off a Riedeman free-throw miss and put it back up for the easy layup to push his team ahead for good.
“I think our depth and being able to take care of the ball were very important,” Tauer said. “I thought our guys dug in on defense, and I’m so proud of the way they kept on competing.”
The Tommies shot 44.2 percent from the floor, but only hit on 2-8 from behind the 3-point line. St. Thomas went 71.8 percent from the free-throw line (28-39).
Wheaton shot 46.7 percent from the floor and were led by guard Brayden Teuscher’s 16 points.
Guard Will DeBerg finished with 13 points with forward Noah Kaiser and Nance chipping in eight points each. The Tommies out-rebounded the Thunder 30-28. The Tommies moved to 16-0 at home this season.
The win puts St. Thomas in its first Sweet 16 since its national title run two years ago. The Tommies know they must be prepared to face a difficult Knight squad (26-3) that’s making its fifth Sweet 16 appearance.
“These guys always talk about ‘on to the next,’” Tauer said with a large grin from ear-to-ear. “Tonight, I want our guys to savor this victory, and tomorrow we’ll start prepping for Calvin.”
Ross Schreck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.