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Video by Ryan Shaver, sports editor
The old adage “respect your elders” got a new twist Saturday as St. Thomas’ seniors led the men’s basketball team to a 78-70 win over Illinois-Wesleyan in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Seniors Tyler Nicolai, Alex Healy and Anders Halvorsen combined for 52 points to help get St. Thomas back to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years.
“You’ve got to have big senior leadership, and our seniors stepped up big tonight,” coach Steve Fritz said.
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No one was bigger than Nicolai, who stuffed the stat sheet with 24 points, four assists, four steals and two rebounds. Coming off a rough shooting performance the previous night, Nicolai came out firing and drilled four first-half 3-pointers, including a 25-footer at the halftime buzzer.
“I kind of got in a rhythm,” Nicolai said. “I hit one and kept it going from there.”
Healy chipped in 15 and Halvorsen added 13 as the Tommies kept their season alive for at least another game.
“They played very well for us and all stepped up,” Fritz said. “That’s what you need.”
Both teams struggled to find the scoring touch early in the game, but Nicolai’s hot hand kicked the Tommies onto an 18-3 run to take a 29-18 lead late in the second half. The Titans weathered the scoring surge and appeared to snatch momentum after cutting the lead to five with just seconds left in the half, but Nicolai’s buzzer-beater stretched the lead back to eight and sent the Tommie fans into halftime in a frenzy.
“He’s unbelievable when he gets going like that,” Fritz said.
St. Thomas kept the defensive pressure cranked up to start the second half, disrupting the Titans’ offense and quickly stretching the lead to 11.
Despite turning the ball over 19 times, Illinois-Wesleyan was able to hang around. Back-to-back buckets with eight minutes left cut St. Thomas’ lead down to six, but as it did all night, the Tommie defense tightened up and helped stretch the lead back to double-digits.
“The big thing is we were able to stop their runs,” Fritz said. “We came up big in the half court [defense].”
The Titans turned to fouling late in the game and came as close as seven points with just more than two minutes to play, but Nicolai was able to penetrate off a crossover move late in the shot clock for a layup.
Sophomore John Nance could have put the final nail in the coffin on either of the next two possessions, but missed a breakaway layup and then a breakaway dunk with just under a minute to play. Instead of the dunk for an exclamation point, St. Thomas had to settle for icing the game at the free-throw line for the second straight night.
But after a first-round exit from the tournament last year, Nicolai isn’t complaining.
“It feels so much better [than last year],” he said. “It’s my last year, and I want to keep playing as long as I can.”
Nicolai said he tries not to think about it during the game, but the fact that his college career is on the line throughout the rest of the tournament serves as motivation.
“You have that chip on your shoulder, because it might be the last time you ever play,” he said.
Nicolai and the rest of the Tommies guaranteed themselves at least one more game, which will be against Wisconsin-Stevens Point Friday, March 11. St. Thomas will find out later this week where and at what time the game will be.
Nicolai said St. Thomas is confident about its chances.
“We can play with any team in the nation if we keep playing the way we are,” Nicolai said.
Jordan Osterman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.