A historic basketball season for St. Olaf got even richer Sunday when the second-seeded Oles defeated three-time defending MIAC tournament champion St. Thomas 63-53 in the title game Sunday at St. Thomas.
St. Olaf (22-5) never trailed in the second half and won its first conference postseason title in its championship-game debut, along with an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III tournament. Justin Pahl led the victory with 20 points.
The title is the first basketball championship of any kind since the St. Olaf men shared the MIAC regular season title in 1988-89.
The host Tommies (22-5), who have won nine consecutive regular-season titles, trailed 41-33 with 12 minutes, 43 seconds remaining before a 7-0 Tommies run made it a one-point game. After the Oles pushed the lead back to three, UST’s Conner Nord scored on a putback and got fouled, but missed the would-be game-tying free throw.
Sterling Nielsen then made three of four at the line on the next two possessions and Connor Gunderson hit a jumper, and the Tommies never got within four the rest of the way. In the final two minutes, St. Olaf went 8-for-8 on free throws.
The Tommies (22-5) got an 18-point, 13-rebound double-double from Taylor Montero. Zach Riedeman added 14 points, four boards and four assists. The Tommies reached the Final Four a year ago, and won the national title in 2011. The national tournament field ill be announced Monday.
Winona State advanced to the conference tournament semifinals with a 78-60 victory over St. Cloud State in Sioux Falls, S.D. Winona State will face Minnesota State Moorhead in a semifinal game Monday. MSU Mankato will play the Wayne State-Southwest Minnesota State winner in the other semifinal.
The Warriors (25-6) limited St. Cloud State to 32 percent shooting, holding the Huskies without a field goal for nearly five minutes during the middle of the second half while the Warriors built a double-digit advantage.
Warriors freshman Riley Bambenek scored 23 points, hitting seven of 15 shots. Damarius Cruz led St. Cloud State (20-8) with 17 points.