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Titletown Crowns “Tommies”

St. Thomas celebrates their first Division III National Championship Saturday afternoon at the Salem Civic Center.

by Gene Marrano

The St. Thomas “Tommies” won their first national championship with a convincing 78-54 win over Wooster at the Salem Civic Center Saturday afternoon. Hats off to the City of Salem and the Old Dominion Athletic Conference as well as Carey Harveycutter and his staff, all of whom put on a dazzling event throughout the weekend. Fans from all four competing schools offered rave reviews on the hospitality of Salem and the big-time atmosphere.  (See lead article in Sports – page 7.)

Two great semifinal games and a not-so-great title tilt nevertheless made for a great weekend of hoops as the City of Salem hosted its 16th consecutive NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Championship last weekend. When it ended last Saturday afternoon the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) had won its first ever title in the school’s second trip to the Final Four – Division III style – and in the “Tommies’” first appearance in the championship game.

St. Thomas’s journey began with a 59-57 semi-final win over Middlebury (Vt) College sending the Tommies to the final. Both teams came into the semifinal riding hot streaks; the Tommies had won 10 straight, the Panthers 12 in a row. Making its second trip to the DIII Final four, St. Thomas also knocked off 2010 champion Wisconsin-Stevens Point on the way to Salem.

In the championship game on Saturday afternoon St. Thomas faced off against the College of Wooster (OH) which had staged a furious late game rally (after being down by as many as 19 points)  to beat defending national runner-up Williams College 73-71 in the other semifinal.

Less than 24 hours after knocking off Middlebury, the Tommies had to face off against the Fighting Scots – the winningest NCAA men’s team of the 2000’s percentage-wise at .854.  Second? Try Division One’s Duke at .837. Wooster (31-3) spent eight straight weeks at the top of the poll during the 2010- 2011 regular season. They had lost only two games by a total of five points before the title game blowout.

The final score: St Thomas 78 – Wooster 54. Thirty year head coach Steve Fritz (his arm in a sling after tearing a muscle last week) – at one time a standout player for the Tommies – praised his “five great seniors, for leading St. Thomas (30-3) to its first title. “That’s exactly why we’re here today,” said Fritz.

One of those seniors, Tyler Nicolai (11 points) was named the championship tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.  Post player Tommy Hannon had 16 points and John Nance came off the bench to also score 16. Alex Healy chipped in with 15.

“All of the guys on the team work so hard,” said Nicolai, who helped slow down the tempo in the second half as the Tommies controlled the clock. “They deserve every bit of this.” St. Thomas scored 25 points off Wooster miscues and led 43-26 at the break.

The Tommies couldn’t rest on their laurels however: the night before in a semifinal win over Williams College, Wooster was down 14 at the half and trailed by 17 with about nine minutes to play before mounting a comeback. There would be no Fighting Scots turnaround in front of a decidedly pro-Wooster crowd however on this day. The closest they would come was 10 down at 46-36 with 17:39 left in the second half.

Fritz called winning the NCAA championship “an unbelievable feeling for us. We’re so thrilled for our kids [and] the University of St. Thomas. It’s great fun.” St. Thomas shot 54% for the game overall while Wooster managed just 41%. The Tommies scored 37 points off of Wooster’s 18 turnovers – a major reason why the University of St. Thomas is now the NCAA Division III champions. Now, a return trip to Salem next March is the ultimate goal, for the D3 version of March Madness.

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