Men’s basketball beats Middlebury, advances to NCAA championship

[slidepress gallery= ‘110318_bballvideo1’]

Video of the final play of the game

SALEM, Va. — The 2010-11 St. Thomas men’s basketball team etched its name in school history Friday after the team’s 59-57 Final Four victory over Middlebury College (28-3).

The 2010-11 Tommies are the first St. Thomas team to make an NCAA national championship appearance. In its 12 NCAA appearances, the team has a 16-12 tournament record, including a Final Four berth for the 1993-94 team, but a Tommie team has never advanced this far. Until now.

“It’s a dream come true,” junior Tommy Hannon said. “It’s every player’s dream to win a national championship, and we’re one game away.”

Senior Tyler Nicolai, who led the Tommies with 15 points on six of nine shooting, wasn’t ready for his Tommie career to be finished Friday.

“It means a lot, especially being my senior year,” he said. “It’s always our goal, and to finally be playing in it is very exciting.”

The Tommies had a 59-57 lead and the ball with 56 seconds left in the game, but Panthers senior Jamal Davis stole a Nicolai pass with 26 seconds remaining. After a Panthers timeout, sophomore Nolan Thompson attempted a fade-away 3-pointer. But the shot, which clanked off the front of the rim, bounced to senior Teddy Archer, who threw the ball to streaking sophomore John Nance to seal the victory.

Middlebury had a 37-28 rebounding advantage over St. Thomas, but Archer’s rebound on the final play proved to be the most important one.

[slidepress gallery=’110318_BBALL_POST’]

Coach Steve Fritz, junior Tommy Hannon and seniors Tyler Nicolai and Teddy Archer in the post-game press conference after defeating Middlebury 59-57 Friday.

The Panthers’ 6-foot-8 forward Ryan Sharry and 6-foot-10 center Andrew Locke caused trouble for the Tommies all night long. The duo that came into the game with a combined 25 blocks in the last two games combined for seven blocks Friday, causing havoc in the lane for slashers such as Archer.

“They have some shot blockers that I’ve never seen on any level,” Archer said.

Nicolai, who averages about 20 points per game, credited the Panthers’ defense for holding him to nine shots.

“[Nolan Thompson] did a great job the whole game. He never left me,” he said. “But I knew I had to keep being aggressive.”

Nicolai started the game aggressively, connecting on five of his first six shots, including two 3-pointers, and helping the Tommies create a 32-25 halftime margin.

But Locke and Thompson helped the Panthers put together a small run at the beginning of the second half, tying the score at 41 with 13:11 remaining.

Nicolai’s jumper put the Tommies ahead 43-42 with 12:33 remaining, but then the Tommies went cold. The Panthers went on an 8-0 run in the next 5:44 to take a 50-45 lead, and then increased their lead to 52-45 with a monster dunk by Locke. Fritz said the Tommies had trouble with the Panthers’ defense in the second half.

“They make it tough to get into an offensive flow,” coach Steve Fritz said. “If you look at their record through the year, they have many times throughout the year where they’ve shut people out for six minutes at a time. They get their hands on so many things, and we were just having a tough time with the flow.”

Fritz called a timeout with 4:22 remaining for the team to regroup, he said, and that’s when things started to turn in the Tommies’ favor.

“You could look in their eyes and tell that they didn’t want to go home,” Fritz said.

Senior Brady Ervin, who had 10 points and five rebounds off the bench, scored four points to lower the Panthers’ lead to a single point with 3:21 remaining.

Senior Alex Healy knocked down two free throws to give the Tommies a 53-52 lead with 2:51 left, and on the ensuing possession, Hannon stole a pass at the top of the key and laid it in to give the Tommies a 55-52 lead. Hannon recognized the Panthers’ play, he said, and took advantage to get the steal.

“They had been running that play all game, and we ran over it in practice,” he said. “They were kind of getting lackadaisical passing through the top, so I just took a chance and went through the middle, and I ended up getting the steal.”

The Tommies never trailed the rest of the game.

St. Thomas applied the same full-court press they’ve used on many other teams throughout their run to the national championship. Middlebury finished with 18 turnovers, eight of which were Tommie steals. Fritz said he was impressed with the effort.

“Our defensive pressure through the whole second half was just unbelievable,” he said.

The Tommies shot 46 percent from the field and 45 percent from the 3-point line. The Panthers hit 42 percent of their shots but only 19 percent of their 3-pointers (3-16).

Archer finished with eight points, four rebounds and two assists. Both Healy and senior Anders Halvorsen scored seven points.

The Tommies will take on the College of Wooster, which came back from a 17-point second-half deficit to defeat Williams College Friday. The national championship will take place at 2:30 p.m. C.S.T. Saturday in Salem, Va.

“They have a nice balance … and the biggest thing is that they’re winners,” Fritz said. “You saw that tonight.”

Fritz said he’s not concerned about the quick turnaround for Saturday’s game.

“If you weren’t in the national championship, it would be a concern, but I know these guys are ready to go,” he said. “You only get this kind of dream once.”

Hannon added, “The hardest thing will be trying to get some sleep tonight.”

Miles Trump can be reached at