SALEM, VA. - St. Thomas made its first trip to the NCAA Division III men's basketball championship game a memorable one.
The Tommies claimed their first NCAA title in impressive fashion Saturday, going on a 37-6 first-half run on their way to a 78-54 victory over Wooster.
Steve Fritz, the 31-year coach of the Tommies with his arm in a sling after tearing a biceps muscle Monday, praised his "five great seniors" for leading eighth-ranked St. Thomas (30-3) to its first title in its 13th NCAA tournament appearance and second Final Four.
"That's exactly why we're here today," said Fritz, who played at St. Thomas from 1967 to '71 before becoming an assistant coach and then head coach.
One of those seniors, guard Tyler Nicolai, was named the championship's Most Outstanding Player. The 5-11 Nicolai scored 11 points Saturday and averaged 17.5 points in the Tommies' six NCAA tournament victories. Post player Tommy Hannon had 16 points, as did reserve John Nance, and Alex Healy chipped in with 15.
"All of the guys on the team work so hard," said Nicolai, who helped control the tempo in the second half as the Tommies protected a double-digit lead. "They deserve every bit of this."
Less than 24 hours after beating No. 2 Middlebury in the semifinals Friday night, the Tommies had to face off against No. 5 Wooster -- the winningest NCAA men's team of the 2000s percentage-wise at .854. The Fighting Scots (31-3) spent eight consecutive weeks at the top of the D3hoops.com poll this season. They had lost two games by a total of five points before Saturday's blowout.
Wooster raced to an 11-2 lead before the Tommies went to work. Nance was the catalyst, scoring 10 points during St. Thomas' big run.
"He came off the bench and got us going," Fritz said. "From there it flowed pretty well."
St. Thomas hit seven of 10 three-pointers for the half and pressed the Scots on defense, leading to 11 first-half turnovers.
"It's got to be key to the way we play," Fritz said of the Tommies' pressure, "[since] we don't have a lot of great size."
St. Thomas scored 25 points off those turnovers and led 43-26 at the break. The Tommies turned their nine-point deficit into a 39-17 lead with 4 minutes, 45 seconds before halftime.
The Tommies couldn't rest too comfortably, however. In Friday's semifinal victory over Williams College, Wooster trailed by 14 at the half and 17 with about nine minutes to play before mounting a comeback.
Sure enough, a 10-3 run in the first 2 1/2 minutes of the second half pulled the Scots within 46-36 before a decidedly pro-Wooster crowd. But the Tommies reasserted themselves, scoring the next seven points; their lead never shrank below 14 the rest of the way. The winning margin tied the largest in D-III playoff history.
St. Thomas hit just one three after intermission, electing instead to play more of an inside game; 36 of the team's 78 points came from inside the paint.
"They're just a team with a lot of weapons," said Wooster coach Steve Moore, whose team was led by Ian Franks' 22 points. "They are very difficult to guard. There's no doubt about it."
After the Tommies posed with their prize and cut down the nets, Fritz was asked how he felt.
"[It's] an unbelievable feeling for us. We're so thrilled for our kids [and] the University of St. Thomas," he said. "It's great fun."