By DOUG HENNES
As happens in many close games, the MIAC playoff semifinal matchup between St. Thomas and St. John's Thursday night came down to which team would take the final shot.
St. John's did, and won. Guard Garrett Goetz sank the only shot he took in the second half to break the game's ninth tie with 2.3 seconds remaining and give his team an 80-78 win over the Tommies before a Schoenecker Arena crowd of 1,370. St. John's (19-8) will play Bethel, a 57-53 winner over Carleton, for the championship on Saturday.
The defeat dropped St. Thomas (19-7), which won a share of its 12th consecutive regular-season title last weekend, to precarious status for the NCAA Division III playoffs. The defending national champions will find out Monday whether they will receive an at-large bid or whether their 11-year run in the national tournament is over.
The loss also spoiled a valiant comeback by St. Thomas, which trailed 59-45 with 14:31 remaining. The Tommies responded with a 23-5 run over the next six minutes to take a 68-64 lead, and after four straight St. John's free throws tied the game, neither team led by more than two points during the final seven minutes.
"We didn't start the second half crisply, and they have a tremendously talented offensive team," St. Thomas coach John Tauer said of the way the Johnnies put together two 8-0 runs in the first six minutes. "To be down 14 and come back to lead by four, the guys showed remarkable resilience."
St. Thomas held its last lead at 72-71 after a Will Dunn free throw with 3:40 remaining. St. John's made the last four shots it took, including two short jumpers by guard David Stokman, to take a 78-76 lead. Senior guard Grant Shaeffer's two free throws tied the game with 30.4 seconds left and the Johnnies set up for the last shot.
"We wanted to keep the ball out of Stokman's hands," said Shaeffer, who had 21 points and seven assists. "Give their guy (Goetz) credit. He made the shot when he had to."
St. Thomas called its final timeout after the Goetz jumper but was unable to cleanly get the ball in for a desperation shot at the buzzer.
Tommies jump off to fast start
Just as they did when they blitzed St. John's early en route to a 55-31 halftime lead in a December win, the Tommies started hot. A John Veil 3-pointer followed by a Shaeffer drive and 3-pointer sparked an 8-0 lead. The Tommies held three other early eight-point leads before St. John's rallied to tie the game at 21 and lead 43-39 at halftime behind a series of layups and short shots in the lane.
"Their offense is predicated on dribble penetration," Tauer said, "and they got a lot of that in the first half. We tightened up on defense in the second half and that made a difference."
"We knew we couldn't let them score as easily as they did in the first half," said junior guard Michael Hannon, who came off the bench to lead St. Thomas with 22 points and made five 3-pointers. "We wanted to limit their shots in the lane and make them work harder for their points."
Shaeffer started the comeback from 14 points down with a layup, followed by an Elijah Hannah 3-pointer and five points from Hannon on two free throws, a layup and a free throw to cut the deficit to 59-55. The Tommies later went on a 9-0 run when freshman forward Tommy Anderson hit back-to-back treys and senior center Jordan Burich made a layup and free throw for a 66-63 lead.
Tauer said the Tommies missed the presence of starting forward Ryan Boll, who sat out the game because of illness. He averaged 14 points and 6.1 rebounds a game during the regular season.
• The Tommies hit 12 3-pointers to four for St. John's but were outscored 22-12 at the free throw line and were outshot 52-42 percent on the game. After dominating the boards in regular-season wins over St. John's, St. Thomas was outrebounded 37-34.
• St. Thomas was in the MIAC playoff title game six years in a row and 11 of the last 12. The Tommies have won 14 titles in the tournament's 32-year history and have a 36-17 playoff record.
• This was the first St. Thomas-St. John's MIAC playoff game in 10 seasons and only the third in 22 seasons. The teams last met in 2007 in the championship game and the Tommies won 75-49, led by current assistant coach Mike Keating's 15 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.