By DOUG HENNES
WHITEWATER, Wis. -- St. Thomas' reign as NCAA Division III men's basketball champions ended suddenly and painfully with a 91-62 loss to hot-shooting UW-Whitewater Saturday night.
The Tommies (22-7) jumped to a quick 7-0 lead by making their first three shots, but host Whitewater (25-4) responded with a 10-0 run and never looked back in snapping St. Thomas' eight-game winning streak.
A subsequent 11-0 run gave the Warhawks a 35-18 lead and they went on to make 61 percent of their shots, including 11 of 18 from three-point range, and held an 26-8 edge at the free-throw line.
It was the second consecutive night that an overpowering Whitewater offense was on display. The Warhawks came into the weekend shooting 50 percent from the field but hit 69 percent in defeating Northwestern of Roseville 83-68 on Friday, and nearly replicated that feat against the Tommies.
"Give a lot of credit to Whitewater," St. Thomas coach John Tauer said. "If they continue to play like that, I don't see many people beating them."
Looking beyond the loss, Tauer praised his players for exceeding expectations throughout the season. The Tommies graduated five of the top six players from their national championship team and lost top scorer and rebounder Tommy Hannon to a knee injury before Christmas.
Despite their youth -- three juniors, a sophomore and a freshman in the starting lineup -- they won their seventh straight MIAC regular season title and sixth conference playoff title in seven years.
"I love our team," Tauer said. "They played their hearts out all year. Tonight didn't go our way, but that doesn't take anything away from what we did all year."
Junior guard Will DeBerg, who had eight points against Whitewater and finished the season as St. Thomas' leading scorer at 13 points per game, felt the same way in terms of what his teammates accomplished as defending national champions.
"It's tough knowing that we are coming into every game with a target on our backs," he said. "Everyone wanted to beat us because of what we did last year."
The Tommies faced Whitewater with a big assignment: containing 6-6 senior center Chris Davis, who averaged 22.7 points a game during the season and scorched Northwestern for 35 points on 15 of 18 shooting the previous evening.
Davis had a subpar night against St. Thomas with only 11 points and three rebounds, but guards Cody Odegaard and Alex Merg picked up the slack. They scored career highs of 29 and 17 points after coming into the game averaging 6.6 and 5.3. Odegaard was nine for 11 from the field, including seven of eight from three-point range.
"They are really good with a guy (Davis) like that in the middle and shooters around him," Tauer said of the Warhawks. "Their cuts, their defensive ball pressure . . . they are good when they get into a rhythm like that."
John Nance was the brightest spot for St. Thomas on offense. After winning Friday night's opener over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps with two free throws in overtime, Nance scored 20 points against the Warhawks. Seventeen of those came in the first half. Conner Nord was the only other Tommie in double figures with 10 points.
The Tommies trailed 42-30 at halftime after DeBerg stole the ball and hit a three-pointer at the buzzer, and held hope they could repeat Friday night's 13-point second-half rally against Claremont. A Nord layup trimmed the Whitewater lead to 42-32, but St. Thomas could get no closer.
A 9-0 run doubled the Warhawks lead to 20, at 57-37, with less than four minutes gone in the second half and they cruised home from there.
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