By DOUG HENNES
WHITEWATER, Wis. -- There is nothing like trailing in a spine-tingling overtime -- make that two spine-tingling overtimes in back-to-back playoff games -- to get the St. Thomas men's basketball team focused and on a roll.
The never-say-quit Tommies rallied from 13 points down in the second half and four overtime deficits to grind out a 76-74 win over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the opening game of the NCAA Division III basketball tournament Friday night in snowy Whitewater.
St. Thomas (22-6), which boosted its winning streak to eight games, will play UW-Whitewater, a 83-68 winner over Northwestern of Roseville, at 7 p.m. Saturday for the right to advance to the Sweet 16 next weekend.
Just like they did in Sunday's MIAC playoff victory over Gustavus Adolphus, when they trailed by five points in overtime, the Tommies stayed cool and kept calling on different players to hit three-point shots, force turnovers and at the very end to nail two free throws to win.
"I always tell the players they have to play all 40 minutes," Coach John Tauer said. "Well, tonight it had to be 45 minutes, and I'm very proud of them. They never gave up."
Perhaps the biggest example of that was John Nance. The junior forward struggled throughout the game, hitting only one of nine shots from the field and turning the ball over four times during his 29 minutes on the court. So there was Nance with 9.5 seconds left in overtime, standing at the free throw line with the score tied 74-74.
"I thought about the last game, against Gustavus, when I missed the first free throw but made the second one to force overtime," he said. "I could have ended that game earlier. I told myself tonight that I wanted to put the game away right there."
And he did. Both free throws were clean -- nothing but net -- and the Tommies threw on a full-court press to disrupt the Claremont effort to get into position for a good shot. The Stags didn't get the ball over the half-court line until shortly before the buzzer and their desperation shot was off the mark.
PHOTOS: Top, John Nance; below, Will DeBerg
The loss was heartbreaking for Claremont (25-3), which jumped out to a quick 5-0 lead and kept St. Thomas at bay with a barrage of three-point shots. The Tommies turned the ball over eight times in the first half and shot 36 percent, but trailed only 34-26 at the break.
A Conner Nord layup and Noah Kaiser three-pointer drew St. Thomas to within three at the beginning of the second half, but Claremont went on an 8-0 run to take its biggest lead at 47-34 with 13:24 remaining.
"It looked grim when we were down by 13," Tauer admitted, but his players figured there was enough time for a comeback.
"In the second half, we knew we would make a run," sophomore guard Erik Tengwall said, "but the momentum was going their way. . . . We just kept chipping away."
A Tengwall three-pointer cut the Claremont lead to 53-45 at the 7:54 mark, and over the next five minutes Will DeBerg hit two treys and Marcus Alipate one to bring the Tommies to within a point at 61-60. A Zach Riedeman layup gave the Tommies their first lead at 64-63 but the Stags forced overtime with a free throw with 21 seconds left.
The overtime featured three ties and four lead changes. A DeBerg three-point shot -- his fourth of the game -- knotted the score at 71. The last tie came at 74-74, after two Claremont free throws with 26 seconds left, and then Nance was fouled and cashed in on his two free throws.
DeBerg led four Tommies in double figures, with 19 points, followed by Riedeman with 13, Kaiser with 12 and Tengwall with 11. St. Thomas committed only two second-half turnovers while forcing 10 turnovers and scoring 10 points off them. Both teams hit 10 three-pointers and both shot better from beyond the arc than inside it; St. Thomas was 58 percent on three-pointers but only 37 percent otherwise.
"In the first half, we didn't look enough at kicking the ball outside," Tauer said. "We went inside a lot. In the second half, we trusted our shooters, and they came through."
"We didn't want to have to rely on the 3-pointer," said DeBerg, whose 59 treys on the season are more than double any other Tommie. "We just wanted to get better shots. In the first half, we didn't protect the ball well enough."
Tauer also praised the hard-nosed play of sophomore backup center Josh Pella. He had no points but pulled down four rebounds, recorded three steals and gave his team a boost of energy at key moments.
"Josh didn't score tonight, but he played like an MVP," Tauer said.
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