Guards Grant Shaeffer and Cortez Tillman shined as they filled the void left by injured point guard Erik Tengwall as the No. 12-ranked St. Thomas men’s basketball team cruised to a 74-59 win over Bethel University in the MIAC semifinals Friday night at Schoenecker Arena.
St. Thomas (22-4 overall, 18-2 MIAC) bounced back from a close home loss to St. John’s last weekend. Stellar guard play from Shaeffer, Tillman, and guard Marcus Alipate proved too much for Bethel to overcome. The three guards contributed for 34 of the Tommies’ 74 points.
“I thought the first half, our guys came out with as good of energy as they (ever) have, particularly with Erik Tengwall not playing,” coach John Tauer said. “I think all of our guys stepped up – in particular Grant Shaeffer and Cortez Tillman. I just love the energy our guys played with, I thought we played great defense the first half and when we got out in transition we got some really easy looks.”
With an announced crowd of 1,360, both teams came out of the gate ready to play. Bethel upset Augsburg 70-67 Wednesday night to face the top-seeded Tommies on the road. St. Thomas had a first-round bye after clinching its ninth-consecutive MIAC regular season championship.
“(In the) first half, we came out just absolutely guns a-blazin’,” forward Zach Riedeman said. “I think we shot 69 percent the first half, had 16 assists – two turnovers, so I really think we just clicked that first half.”
While the game started out as a back-and-forth chess match, the Tommies eventually started to pull away with 12 minutes remaining in the first half. Bethel had the chance to cut it down to a one-point St. Thomas lead from the free-throw line, but instead missed both shots, and Tillman took full advantage of the opportunity and drained a 3-pointer.
After that five-point swing, the Tommies went on to ride the wake of a 12-4 run to end the first half.
Tempers flared between players when St. Thomas guard Taylor Montero and Bethel guard Tyler Schmidt both ended up on the ground away from the ball. After a few minutes, play resumed and Shaeffer eased the home-fans’ nerves with a lay-up and a converted free-throw, putting the Tommies up 47-26 at the half.
St. Thomas was on fire from the floor in the first half, hitting 69 percent of its shots from the floor and 54 percent from behind the 3-point line. The second half, however, was a completely different story for the Tommies’ offense.
“We got complacent a little bit as far as on offense getting our shots, so I think the second half – we have ebb and flows throughout the game … so we weren’t hitting our shots as much as we were in the first half,” Alipate said. “What I like about our team is guys step up and made up for it in different ways.”
The Tommies’ shooting percentage plummeted to 29 percent in the second half, including only 20 percent from 3-point land. While the Royals shot a considerably higher mark in the second half, St. Thomas limited the Royals’ comeback potential by limiting their 3-point shooting.
“They made some halftime adjustments, and they kind of buckled down on defense in the second half. They kind of got a little run going, but we needed to step up and make stops and keep that lead up,” Riedeman said.
Forward Aden Casey sank a three, Kyle von Schmidt-Pau made two free-throws, and guard Brycen Wojta had a floater drop that cut St. Thomas’ 20-point halftime lead to 11 with 12:59 remaining in the game.
“Some of that stemmed from the fact that they were scoring, so it was harder to get out in transition. Some of it, I think we were a little lethargic on offense, and often times those two ends of the floor go hand in hand,” Tauer said. “Second half was not our finest basketball, but I also give a lot of credit to Bethel.”
The game momentum finally returned to the Tommies when they grabbed a pivotal offensive rebound and kicked it back out for another Tillman 3-pointer. After a stop on the defensive end, St. Thomas swung the ball with six crisp passes, with the ball finally ending up in Shaeffer’s hands, who then sank a three.
“It was a couple timeouts where we kind of all looked at each other and said, ‘you know, we really got to buckle down guys and get some stops on (defense), and let’s take smart shots on offense and really work that clock. Clock’s in our favor, so buckle down and get everything else done,’” Riedeman said.
With three minutes to play, Bethel once again was within reach to make a late-game comeback when Riedeman turned the ball over inside the paint. Luckily for him and the Tommies, Riedeman made up for the blunder with a block, leaving St. Thomas up for good.
“They came out of the locker room with a lot of fire, and in the first five or six minutes they took it to us a little bit. We always talk about playing 40 minutes, and I thought we didn’t quite play 40 (minutes), so that’s the fun part – we get to go back to practice tomorrow and try and improve,” Tauer said. “It’s never a work of perfection but it was a pretty good performance.”
With Friday night’s victory, St. Thomas moves on to host St. Olaf Sunday at 2 p.m. for the MIAC playoff championship at Schoenecker Arena.
Joey Anderson can be reached at Ande9008@stthomas.edu