Friday will be a big day for St. Thomas basketball teams. Both the men and women will open NCAA Division III tournament play, with the women’s team playing at home and the men on the road.
Coach Ruth Sinn’s 11th-ranked women’s team, which is riding a 26-game winning streak, will face Martin Luther (20-7) at 8 p.m. Friday, March 2, at home.
“We have focused all season on one game at a time and being our best and preparing,” Sinn said. “We are very excited to host. We learned from last year to be more consistent and make sure we put all the control that we can into our hands, and I think this year we did.”
The Knights are from New Ulm, Minn., and are a part of the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference. They don’t share any common opponents with St. Thomas.
“We haven’t really gone over what kind of team they are or their personnel,” sophomore Taylor Young said. “I think we can do well… we don’t really know what to expect yet.”
Martin Luther is led by senior guard Erica Babinec’s 16 points per game. Babinec also averages three assists. Sophomore forward Amanda Burk is also a double-digit scorer with 13 points per game, and she leads the team with nearly nine rebounds per game.
Senior Ali Johnson said what separates this year’s team from last year’s is the chemistry.
“I’ve never been on a team that is so close. I think our chemistry is one of the biggest strengths we have,” Johnson said. “In these types of games that is really crucial, and it can work to our advantage.”
This year’s MIAC playoff title is the second in the last three seasons for Sinn’s team, and the first captured at home. It also is the first time the Tommie women swept both the regular-season and playoff titles in the 12 years the format has been in place.
“You don’t fix what isn’t broken. We are going to continue to fine-tune what we have been doing and see if we can take a couple steps to be just a little better in certain areas and clean it up,” Sinn said. “We need to continue to play at this point and see if we can rise to that challenge.”
If the Tommies win on Friday, they will face the winner of Coe College (Iowa) versus Wisconsin-River Falls. St. Thomas scrimmaged River Falls at the beginning of the season.
The men’s team (21-6) faces Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the first round of the tournament at 5:30 p.m. Friday in Whitewater, Wis. Should they win, the Tommies will face the winner of Wisconsin-Whitewater (23-4) and Northwestern (Minn.), which is 17-10.
The Tommie men were the last team announced in the tournament web cast Monday morning. St. Thomas qualified by beating Gustavus Adolphus 66-62 in overtime Sunday, Feb. 26, at home.
Senior Tommy Hannon, who is out with a knee injury, said he doesn’t know much about how Claremont-Mudd-Scripps plays. However, after beating two similar California teams earlier in the season, he feels confident that his team matches up well.
“We have looked at Claremont’s stats and feel we will match up well against them,” he said.
Although the Tommies won the MIAC playoffs, Hannon said they still expected to play on the road.
“We expected to be on the road because we hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament last year,” he said.
Gustavus (20-7) also made the tournament as an at-large team and sits in the bracket above St. Thomas, playing Wheaton (Ill.) The two teams may meet in the third round.
Hannon said that he is looking forward to the possible fourth meeting with Gustavus. UST won two of three meetings with the Gusties this season.
“I’m happy to see another MIAC team make it into the playoffs,” he said. “It will make another great game.”
The Tommie men are the defending national champion. Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (25-2), from the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, has lost only twice — once to Whittier is double-overtime on the road and to Pomona-Pitzer, 51-50, last Tuesday.
The Stags are led by forward Chris Blees’s 15 points and six rebounds per game. Sophomore guard Tyler Gaffaney and 6-foot-6 senior forward Mani Maciera also are double-digit scorers for C-M-S.
The two teams played one common opponent, St. Olaf. C-M-S defeated the Oles 82-74 in November; St. Thomas defeated St. Olaf twice, 78-77 and 78-56.
Graphics designed by Maggie Clemensen.