The matchup seemed less than ideal.
The St. Thomas men's basketball team entered the Division III national tournament having lost three of its previous four games. The team's defense was hemorrhaging, allowing 89 points per game during the skid.
The Tommies won their first-round game last Friday but drew No. 1 Nebraska Wesleyan — the defending national champion, 27-1 and playing at home — in the second round.
Nebraska Wesleyan was one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation and also plays a stifling matchup zone on defense. St. Thomas hadn't played against an exclusive zone-defense team in five years.
"We know we can compete with anybody in the country, no matter where we're playing," freshman guard Anders Nelson said.
They proved it. The Tommies upset the No. 1 seed 70-58 on Saturday in Lincoln, Neb.
"It's one of those games that I'll remember forever," said St. Thomas coach Johnny Tauer, whose team plays Guilford College (N.C.) on Friday in the Sweet 16 in Oshkosh, Wis.
The win had a feel of serendipity for Tauer, whose own playing career at St. Thomas ended in 1995 in a stunning upset to Nebraska Wesleyan in the second round of the tournament. The Tommies were 27-0 and considered one of the nation's top teams that year.
"People want to play up the revenge angle," Tauer said. "More than anything, you don't very often get to go play the No. 1 team in the country who's also the defending national champs on their court. You probably don't want that."
The manner in which they won was odd. The Tommies made 10 of their first 14 three-point attempts, then missed 16 in a row in one stretch. "Talk about regression to the mean," Tauer said.
The Tommies didn't score a point for more than 11 minutes but took control of the game with four reserves on the court and their two leading scorers on the bench.
"We got on a roll and [it feels like] you're at the blackjack table," Tauer said. "As coaches, sometimes you're like, 'Don't mess it up.' "
Tauer, who guided St. Thomas to the 2016 national title, always seems to play the right cards, this season being a prime example. The Tommies were picked to finish fourth in the MIAC and were unranked in the national poll. They won 21 consecutive games and reached No. 5 nationally in winning the MIAC regular-season title.
Tauer has had more athletic teams, but this version thrives in its own way. The Tommies average 84.9 points, a school record. They lead the nation in fewest turnovers per game and assist-to-turnover ratio.
The rotation goes 10 deep, and Tauer occasionally uses the hockey line change method, subbing five for five.
"We're not big, but we're scrappy," he said. "We're not going to physically overpower people."
Tauer joked that his team doesn't often win the eye test in warmups.
"It's legal to dunk in warmups in college now," he said. "I wish it weren't. Our guys are finger-rolling everything. We're playing teams that have seven or eight guys just crushing [dunks]. We're watching it with our hands on our heads, like, 'Oh boy.'"
Don't be fooled. The Tommies have talent. Senior forward Connor Bair and Nelson were named first-team all-MIAC.
Nelson, a former standout at Edina, had four Division II offers and drew interest from five Division I programs (including the Gophers) about being a preferred walk-on.
"I wanted to play for a team that I know is going to compete for a win every night," Nelson said.
The Tommies are two wins away from another Final Four appearance. Tauer cautioned his players that their task doesn't get easier just because they eliminated the No. 1 team.
"We feel really good right now, but Guilford just won two games, too," he said. "The fun part about the tournament is how to get your team back [emotionally]."