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Video by Jordan Osterman, senior reporter
Senior All-American Tyler Nicolai’s gritty defensive performance led the St. Thomas men’s basketball team to a 70-60 win over visiting Northwestern College Friday night, advancing St. Thomas to the second round of the NCAA Division III tournament.
Despite an 0-4 first-half shooting effort, Nicolai carried the Tommies down the stretch, hitting key free throws and forcing multiple turnovers on defense. Nicolai finished the game 4-14 from the field but had 17 points, five steals and no turnovers.
“When you’re an All-American, you’ve got to have a lot to your game,” coach Steve Fritz said. “The one thing about veterans is they believe in themselves. He’s got to keep shooting even when it’s not going down.”
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Playing in front of a packed Schoenecker Arena, the Tommies started the game slow, falling behind the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference champion 14-6 in the game’s opening minutes.
“At this time of the year, it’s the first time you’ve played a back-to-back with a team playing before you,” Fritz said. “You’re kind of ready, then you wait 15 minutes, and you don’t know much about your opponent, so I think you’re feeling yourself out a little bit. They did a little better job at that point.”
Needing a spark, the Tommies turned to their bench for help, and sophomore John Nance rose to the occasion. Last week’s MIAC player of the week scored six unanswered points for St. Thomas, including a heavily contested 3-pointer to pull the Tommies within two points midway through the first half.
“Johnny’s (Nance) worked very hard on his game,” Fritz said. “We all know he’s very athletic, but he’s making himself into a basketball player, and that’s fun to see.”
With the game tied after Nance’s scoring run, St. Thomas found itself down once again. Riding UMAC conference player of the year Brian Lecheler’s 10 first-half points, the Eagles led 29-24 with two minutes left.
Determined to take the lead before half, St. Thomas got four unanswered points from senior Alex Healy and junior Tommy Hannon to cut the Eagles’ lead to one. After a Nance jumper gave the Tommies the lead with less than 40 seconds left, Northwestern silenced the Tommie crowd with a Gabe Jefferson 3-pointer as time expired. Northwestern led St. Thomas 32-30 going into halftime.
“I think we were just trying to do too much,” Healy said. “We just kind of had to settle down a little bit. They’re a good team. They deserve some credit for that too.”
Northwestern proved the first half was no fluke by starting the second half just as strong. The Eagles battled the Tommies hard on the boards and forced tough shots, which kept the Eagles in the lead for nearly half the second half. But when the Tommies turned up the pressure on defense, Northwestern began to make costly mistakes.
“We just got our press going a lot,” Healy said. “We forced a lot more turnovers in the second half. [We] definitely picked up the tempo of the game and kind of got them to turn the ball over a little bit, which really seemed to help.”
With 11 minutes left, senior Teddy Archer capitalized on a Northwestern turnover, hitting two free throws to pull St. Thomas within two points. After Nance pick-pocketed Eagles guard Nate Thompson, Hannon grabbed an offensive rebound in a crowded lane and put it back up to tie the game at 43.
Seconds later, Archer stole the ball from Northwestern’s Wade Chitwood and dished it to Healy for an easy layup to give the Tommies the lead. With the home crowd behind St. Thomas, Northwestern called a timeout in an attempt to regain some composure.
“It’s the best playing at home,” Nicolai said. “I don’t know if we would have had as big of a comeback as we did there if we weren’t at home.”
After taking the lead, the Tommies controlled the tempo until Jefferson and Chitwood brought the Eagles back, tying the score at 50 with seven minutes remaining. Scoring all 17 of his points in the second half, Nicolai put the Tommies on his back, forcing three steals down the stretch and making a key 3-pointer with two minutes remaining to give St. Thomas a 59-55 lead. Nicolai finished the game 3-9 from beyond the arc.
Nicolai’s 3-pointer shifted the momentum back in the Tommies’ favor, and the team fed off the home crowd, stopping the Eagles on the defensive end and making their free throws offensively.
“I can’t even put a figure on how many points [the crowd] helped us with tonight,” Healy said. “It seemed like they helped us get a lot of loose balls and offensive rebounds.”
In the final two minutes of the game, seniors Brady Ervin and Nicolai soared for huge offensive rebounds and made their free throws to seal the deal for the Tommies. St. Thomas finished 18-25 from the line and forced 19 Northwestern turnovers.
For Northwestern, Chitwood scored a team-high 17 points on six of 10 shooting. But the Eagles’ top scorers Chitwood and Lecheler combined for nine of Northwestern’s 19 turnovers.
The Tommies’ bench dominated the Eagles’ second unit, holding a 24-7 advantage. Nance finished the game with 14 points off the bench, and Ervin added four points and six rebounds.
“We feel like we have one of the best benches in the nation,” Hannon said. “Brady and especially John stepped up, and they’ve been playing real well lately. We need them to keep contributing.”
Friday’s victory sets up a showdown between two of Division III’s most successful teams. After defeating Wisconsin-River Falls Friday night, Illinois-Wesleyan advanced to take on the Tommies at 7 p.m. Saturday at home.
“They’re tough,” Healy said. “They’ve got some really good big guys, and some really good guards. They come from one of the best conferences in Division III basketball, so it’ll be a tough game.”
Ryan Shaver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.