By DOUG HENNES
St. Thomas knew it would face an up-tempo, high-flying opponent in Aurora in Saturday’s NCAA Division III tournament opener, so Coach John Tauer told his players to be -– above all -– patient in their approach to the game.
Patience paid off big for the Tommies. So did hotter shooting (56 percent to 34 percent), a deeper bench (43-24 advantage in points) and a scrappy defense that held the Spartans to 22 points in the first half and 23 under their season average of 85.
The result: A 91-62 win for top-ranked St. Thomas (27-1) before 1,210 fans in Schoenecker Arena and a matchup next Saturday with No. 23 Wheaton (21-6), which rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit to defeat St. Norbert 59-58. A location for the game will be announced on Sunday.
“We knew they were potent,” St. Thomas coach John Tauer said of Aurora (22-7), the Northern Athletics Conference champion. “They got some early points inside on us, but we adjusted and kept them out of the paint, and then we had that run.”
“That run” turned a 12-12 game that had nine early lead changes into an ultimate mismatch, with the Tommies outscoring Aurora 16-2 over a six-minute span to take a 25-12 lead. Junior forward Zach Riedeman capped the run with a layup and finished with game highs of six assists and 16 points on 5 of 6 shooting from the field and 4 of 4 from the free-throw line.
“The coaches told us all week that Aurora was fast and would push the tempo, and that we had to keep them out of the paint,” Riedeman said. “We let them inside too much early and they got some easy shots, but then we buckled down.”
A 15-4 run to close the first half gave the Tommies a 42-22 lead at the break and they led by as many as 32 in the second half. Thirteen players scored and three joined Riedeman in double figures –- Tommy Hannon scored 14 and Conner Nord and Marcus Alipate had 10 each. Hannon pulled down 13 rebounds for his ninth career double-double.
“Our calling card is our depth,” the senior center said of the Tommies, who had nine players log 11 or more minutes. “Our guys came in and kept putting it on them. That was the difference again tonight. We wore them down with our pressure.”
Riedeman agreed and like the way so many players scored. “We feed off each other,” he said. “One guy hits a shot, and then another guy hits one, and it just grows.”
The Tommies have won 11 in a row since a mid-season loss to Concordia and extended their Schoenecker record to 15-0 this year and 40-3 since the arena opened three seasons ago.
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