It was a much anticipated Saturday night NCAA men's playoff game at Schoenecker Arena. Some jazzed-up fans witnessed an emotional second-round game, with a trip to the round of 16 at stake.
Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a heavyweight from the nation's best Division III basketball conference, was looking to continue a remarkable NCAA playoff record in this decade.
The gritty, low-scoring game wasn't decided until the last seconds. Neither team shot over 40% or cracked 55 points. The mighty Pointers came up a hair short of victory.
Nope, it wasn't last Saturday's 53-50 chess match won by the host Tommies.
The game in reference was actually the NCAA playoff game from 365 days earlier, in the first weekend of March 2008. Final: Buena Vista 54, Stevens Point 53.
The Beavers had abruptly ended St. Thomas' season the previous night by a 72-71 margin. On that Saturday, in the upper-deck seats above the Schoenecker floor, B.J. Viau, Josh Peltier and Brett Tuma watched with long faces and long memories, still stinging from a rare home-court loss the night before.
So the Tommies' off-season preparation began with a scouting trip, a mere 24 hours after the 2007-08 season was over.
"That's why we came out last year to watch, we wanted to see what it takes to win in this round," said Viau, moments after his Tommies held off the Pointers for a three-point win. "We wanted to do everything we could the whole off season to get the chance to get back here and be able to win games
"And even with our record and ranking and this win, we aren't where we need to be. We need to go back to work this week in practice. We just want to be 1-0 on the last day of the Division III season."
It was hard to get a complete read on the Tommies' 28-0 start. How much of the 22-0 conference run was UST's athleticism and depth, and how much was due to a down year in the MIAC?
Of St. Thomas' first 28 games, more than half were against teams with sub-.500 final records, and only three (all vs. Bethel) came against teams with more than 16 victories. The Toms won in overtime at Division II Concordia-St. Paul, and also beat the likes of accomplished programs Gustavus, Occidental, St. John's, Carleton, Augsburg, UW-LaCrosse and UW-River Falls.
Yet many wondered how the Tommies would react in a tight finish or if challenged an entire 40 minutes. St. Thomas has only trailed by double digits once all season. The Toms were taken to overtime twice to close December, but only two of their next 19 games were still in doubt in the final minute.
Saturday, the Tommies' defense again was the difference. Talented Stevens Point senior starters Bryan Beamish, Pete Rortvedt and Khalifa El-Amin combined to score 34 points a game this season. Together they produced 27 points in Friday's close win over Cornell. But against St. Thomas, the trio collectively had four points on 1-for-18 shooting.
Both teams struggled in field-goal percentage. Some of that was a result of the tense game atmosphere where every possession seemed pivotal. There was also the fatigue factor of playing twice in 24 hours, a challenge that Division I teams don't face in the NCAA playoffs. But the low scoring was mostly a result of relentless defense by both teams.
You have to admire St. Thomas' versatility on the weekend. In Friday's,free-wheeling game vs. Aurora, the Toms scored 96 points, the most in 33 all-time national postseason games for the program. On Saturday, they won a nail biter by giving up only 50 points. That's the fewest points a Tommie team has surrendered in a national tournament game in 60 seasons.
On Saturday with just 10 seconds left, in the biggest game of the season, against the No. 4-ranked team in the country, the Tommies' high scorer had 10 points. That's usually a recipe for a blowout loss. Joe Scott's subsequent dunk let him finish with 12 points, and nine other UST players chipped in 41 points.
"We knew this game was going to be decided in the half-court, and our defense would be so crucial," Viau said. "We proved tonight we can play against anybody and play against any style."
The Tommies now face another difficult task in Puget Sound, which averages 86 ppg and has just one loss to Division III competition this winter, that in overtime.
St. Thomas' win over a No. 4-ranked Wisconsin team is even more sweet given the number of Badger state schools that have sidelined nationally-ranked Tommie teams in recent years.
In the last decade, Coach Steve Fritz' Tommies lost close NCAA round two playoff games to Oshkosh, Lawrence and Carroll.
In baseball, the Tommies have had some intense postseason games against Whitewater, Stevens Point and Oshkosh but in the last seven years have come up short of the World Series.
UST's nationally-ranked volleyball team came two points shy of a trip to the national quarterfinals with a November 2007 loss to Whitewater, and last fall had won 28 of its last 29 matches before a season-ending five-game loss to LaCrosse.
Last May, the No. 3-ranked Tommie softball team had a 27-game win streak halted as it lost to eventual national champion UW-Eau Claire in extra innings. The next day they were knocked from the loser's bracket by Oshkosh.
In men's hockey, the Toms lost in overtime last March to eventual NCAA champion St. Norbert.
And then there's the Brady Ervin factor. Ervin erased the last Stevens Point lead on Saturday with four points off the bench during a 55-second stretch in the second half -- a tip in and a sweet left-handed hook.
At Eden Prairie High, Ervin was part of potent football and basketball teams in his varsity career. As a football walk-on at Division I Iowa State in 2006 and 2007, he endured a tough stretch. He was part of Cyclone teams that went 7-17, including an 0-10 road record. But since transferring to St. Thomas last fall, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Ervin has had a magic touch. He's has been on teams that have played 39 games in football and basketball. The record: 36 wins, three defeats. (The three losses were in a Division III record six overtimes; and two games decided in the final seconds, including a disputed 12-9 loss to St. John's.)
PHOTO: Brady Ervin
Winter has brought an even better aura for Ervin, Viau and the Tommies.
"It feels awesome right now," Viau said. "I remember one moment running down the court and the crowd was standing and screaming, and I'm thinking, 'This is what life is all about. I'm playing in this game with my best buddies, against a great team, in front of a sold-out arena.' "
Even Vince Flynn couldn't have written a better ending for the last Tommie basketball game at Schoenecker Arena.
Now stay tuned for the next chapter as the Tommies chase a 30-0 start. It's a Friday the 13th game. In the so-called "Bracket of Death." Against a frightening team nicknamed the "Loggers," with a mascot who wields an axe.
I'm not sure who I should call for a prediction -- Steven Fritz, Stephen A. Smith, or Stephen King.