John Nance’s career-high 20 points off the bench led the St. Thomas men’s basketball team to an 83-77 victory over Gustavus in the MIAC championship Sunday afternoon.
The win secures St. Thomas a bid in the NCAA tournament and is the program’s 1,500th all-time victory. The men’s basketball team has won 26 MIAC titles and will make its sixth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
“It was pretty special,” senior guard Alex Healy said. “We have a pretty proud tradition as a program, so it’s kind of nice to be the team that finally gets 1,500.”
The Gusties beat top-seeded Carleton Friday and hung tough with the No. 2-seeded Tommies throughout the game.
The Tommies dominated early, jumping out to a 23-8 lead. Gustavus cut the lead to six at one point in the first half, but St. Thomas went on an 11-3 run to take a 47-33 lead into halftime.
“Every time we made a run, they made one and answered us,” senior guard Tyler Nicolai said. “They are a tough team.”
In the opening minutes of the second half, Gustavus controlled the tempo of the game, whittling the Tommies’ lead to seven points. Needing a spark, the Tommies turned to Nicolai, who hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions.
“They were open shots,” Nicolai said. “I’ve got to credit the guys for finding me there.”
Throughout the game students from both schools, some bare-chested and body-painted, traded chants, but the banter intensified in the game’s closing minutes.
Gustavus students chanted “D-1 reject” as Nance, who transferred from the University of Minnesota, sank two free throws to give St. Thomas a seven-point lead with less than one minute left in the game. The Tommies converted 8-of-8 free throws in the final 40 seconds.
“They said that stuff at Gustavus too,” Nance said. “It’s just noise. I’m not really listening to them.”
Nance was knocked to the floor several times as he racked up points, but he said he didn’t let the contact affect him.
“I guess I just adapted to getting hit all the time,” he said.
St. Thomas senior Teddy Archer called Gustavus the best screen team he has ever seen.
“It’s playoff time, and I invite good, physical play,” he said.
Archer grabbed an offensive rebound with 38.7 seconds left in the game, which forced Gustavus into a fouling situation. Archer finished the game with eight points and four rebounds.
“My teammates expect me to do something like that,” Archer said. “My guys hit all those free throws, and I expect that’s going to happen too.”
Seth Anderson scored a game-high 28 points for the Gusties, and guard Phil Wirtjes added 23 points.
St. Thomas senior Brady Ervin chipped in a career-high 16 points off the bench for the Tommies, who also got 18 points from Nicolai and eight from senior Anders Halvorsen.
The Tommies will learn their opponent when the NCAA playoff bracket is announced Monday at 2 p.m.
Alex Keil can be reached at email@example.com.