Back when Tyler Nicolai was in elementary school, he often cut deals with his gym teacher. If he could make a free throw, or maybe a three-point shot, the class would get 15 extra minutes of gym time. "I liked that pressure, getting up in front of all my classmates," Nicolai said. "And I still like it."
The St. Thomas point guard has proven it time and again, which is why assistant coach John Tauer didn't worry about Nicolai's nerves Friday. But Tauer was concerned with the senior's only flaw: a tendency to be too passive on the basketball floor. So with 17 seconds remaining against Wisconsin-Stevens Point, with an NCAA Elite Eight berth on the line, Tauer prayed that Nicolai would follow his instructions to go to the hoop. "If he shot a three-pointer," Tauer said, "I was going to make both of us swim home in the Mississippi River."
Nicolai calmly brought the ball up the floor, spun around a defender and sliced through the lane, flicking in a layup with 4 seconds left for a 66-64 victory. That ensured he and his very happy coach would take the usual route back to St. Paul, where they will spend this week preparing for the NCAA Division III Final Four. It also added another highlight to four terrific years with the Tommies, during which Nicolai has started every game and become one of the best three-point shooters in school history.
At 5-11 and 165 pounds, Nicolai was deemed too small for Division I coming out of Hopkins High School. Tauer and Tommies head coach Steve Fritz believed so strongly in his talents that they didn't get hung up on his size, and the St. Thomas program is richer for it.
"We wanted the ball in Tyler's hands at the end of that game," said Tauer, whose eighth-ranked Tommies will play No. 2 Middlebury (Vt.) in Friday's NCAA semifinals in Salem, Va. "To see him go to the basket with his career on the line, that was special.
"People always thought his size would hurt him. But it hasn't, because he's a great kid, a great teammate, who never makes a bad decision. He has met or exceeded every expectation we had for him, and more importantly, he's been a great representative of our program."
This season, Nicolai leads the Tommies with 14.6 points per game. He has 249 career three-pointers -- third on St. Thomas' all-time list -- and has made 41 percent of his three-point attempts during his career.
An All-America and MIAC player of the year as a junior, Nicolai has the third-best assist-to-turnover ratio in Division III, with 101 assists and only 26 turnovers in 31 games. He's expected to make his 118th start Friday, which St. Thomas officials say is the most in the MIAC in at least 50 years and is believed to be among the most in Division III history.
Had he not had the tireless dedication of a gym rat -- and the desire to quash doubts about his abilities -- he might have been just another business major at St. Thomas. Nicolai stood only 5-2 as a sophomore in high school. He stayed in the gym for hours working on his shot and his ballhandling skills; when he shot up to 5-10 as a junior, he teamed with future Gopher Blake Hoffarber in the Hopkins backcourt and won a Class 4A state title in 2006.
Though he made recruiting visits to some Division II schools, Nicolai was drawn to St. Thomas' academic reputation and its perennially powerful basketball program. He has won fans with his poise, selflessness and knack for making big plays in high-pressure situations. In the Tommies' four NCAA tournament games, he has scored 79 points, with 56 of those coming in the second half.
"I was always the smallest kid, not only on my team but in my grade," Nicolai said. "A lot of people told me I'd probably never play, because I was too small.
"That motivated me. I knew I had to work harder and try to get better every day, because that was the only way it was going to happen. When I work with kids at [basketball] camps, that's what I tell them. If people say you can't do something, keep working and never give up."
Nicolai expects his basketball career will end with his final Tommies game, adding a melancholy note to this merry March. This weekend, with just one chance left to seize a longtime goal, Tauer will not have to urge him to be aggressive.
"I would trade any award, any individual record, for a national championship," Nicolai said. "I've had an awesome time here. And that would be the greatest way to go out."
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org