The St. Thomas basketball teams spent last winter as orphans, playing home games nearby at the Concordia and Macalester arenas. The reason for this was that the athletic facilities were turned to rubble, carted away and replaced by the magnificent Anderson Athletic & Recreation Complex.

This structure includes a new Schoenecker Arena, to which St. John's men's coach Jim Smith brought his team for the first time Saturday.

There was a junior varsity preliminary early in the afternoon. Smith and his St. Thomas counterpart, Steve Fritz, sat together for a time and smiled over past contests that were played in ancient gymnasiums.

Smith dates to the fall of 1964 as the Johnnies head coach, and Fritz has been involved with the Tommies since 1967 -- four seasons as a standout post player, nine as the assistant to Tom Feely and now in his 31st season as the head coach.

When these gentlemen came to the rivalry, St. Thomas was playing its games in a third-floor cracker box called O'Shaughnessy Hall, and the Johnnies played in a bunker nicknamed "Rat Hall.''

All that survives of O'Shaughnessy in this new complex are the dark, worn doors that served as the public entrance to the gym. Rat Hall still stands; it is used for home games by St. John's Prep School.

Smith and Fritz were involved in a game at O'Shaughnessy, late in the 1960s and late in the schedule. With Fritz as a star, the Tommies had clinched another conference title and thus planned some pregame pizzazz.

The lights were turned off and a spotlight was placed across a paper-covered hoop. The champion Tommies would run through the paper to a deafening welcome.

Except, a St. John's student beat them to the hoop and broke through, and soon the St. Paul cops arrived to end a small riot.

The coaches smiled at the recollection and Smith said: "We don't have riots anymore.''

For Smith, the rivalry has taken an unhappy turn in Fritz's favor. On Saturday, the Tommies held on for a 62-59 victory that was their ninth in a row and No. 15 in the past 18 games against St. John's.

The Johnnies are not unique in finding the Tommies of this vintage difficult to handle. St. Thomas is in pursuit of a sixth consecutive title -- a feat not accomplished since Hamline and Joe Hutton won seven in a row from 1947 through 1953. The Tommies are leading the league at 10-1, and are 101-10 in the MIAC over these 5 1/2 seasons.

On Saturday, St. John's came back from 15 down in the last six minutes to get within 61-59. And it had a three-pointer in the air at the buzzer that could have forced overtime.

Smith felt that "three or four missed layups'' prevented the upset. It was mentioned to him that this was Game No. 101 (37-64) that he has coached against the Tommies.

"Really?'' Smith said. "I wish you hadn't told me that.''

There are several seniors on both of these teams. Those Tommies never have lost to the Johnnies, and vice versa. If St. Thomas wants to maintain that superiority in the Feb. 19 rematch in Collegeville, it might need an antidote for Todd Herman.

He's a 6-4 Johnnies senior from New London-Spicer and was ineligible for fall semester. He's been back for seven games and scored 25 points Saturday.

"Herman hasn't played for them all the time, but if he had, he might be the conference MVP,'' the Tommies' Teddy Archer said. "He's a scorer.''

Archer hasn't been that, during his days at DeLaSalle, or in four years as a guard for the Tommies.

"Coaches haven't said to me, 'You should shoot more' -- not playing at DeLaSalle with three guys that went D-I, and playing with All-Americans here,'' Archer said. "Today was about 10 points above normal for me.''

The 6-1 Archer was able to get to the basket, made six of nine shots and equaled a career high with 13 points. Problem was, he missed the front end of two one-and-ones, which assisted the Johnnies' rally.

"Our coach loves free throws -- coaches us to get to the line,'' Archer said. "He always says, 'Bend your knees.' I don't always listen.''

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. •