ST. JOSEPH, MINN. – St. John's was the home team for an MIAC men's basketball playoff semifinal Friday night. The visitor would be St. Olaf, on a late-season surge that included a win over St. John's earlier this month, and in the last second of a playoff quarterfinal at Gustavus Adolphus.

"The Oles had some injuries,'' St. John's coach Pat McKenzie said. "Now they're healthy, and they're good."

McKenzie was saying this an hour before tipoff, in a large room containing a few chairs on the lower level of Claire Lynch Hall.

A water main burst on the St. John's campus overnight. Complications showed up with the repair, so early in the afternoon the game was moved to the wonderful little gym that houses the St. Benedict Bennies, the Johnnies' sister school located 3½ miles to the southeast.

The gym sits below the entrance level. It's alleged to have bleachers holding 1,100 and balconies that allow scores more to be in attendance.

That was the case Friday. A crowd that would have been well-spaced in the Johnnies' Warner Palestra was jammed into Claire Lynch. Throw in the outstanding acoustics and that place was extra-loud, at least until midway in the second half as the Johnnies started to pull away for a 76-57 victory.

It was an outstanding first half — SJU, 34-30 — and for a long-ago St. Cloud Timesman (1966-68), the atmosphere was similar to the Johnnies' notorious, claustrophobic "Rat Hall" that preceded the roomy Palestra.

Similar for noise, although not with the merciless taunting from the Johnnies' Rat Pack toward opponents and officials.

OK, there's a bit of that, but mostly it was a fully engaged crowd in a packed gym — almost like your average Johnnies-St. Thomas game.

In the spring of 2019, a couple of weeks after word spread the Tommies would be getting the boot from the MIAC (more willingly than first imagined), I had a conversation with McKenzie.

He was banned from talking specifics, as were all MIAC coaches and administrators, but he was shook up.

The Tommies' departure undoubtedly would lead to more conference hardware for the Johnnies, but it was the rivalry that the Johnnies didn't want to lose … not McKenzie, not football coach Gary Fasching, not football assistant and baseball coach Jerry Haugen, none of those competitors up there in Collegeville.

This has been the first winter with St. Thomas not on the schedule. And it comes after the Tommies' final MIAC go-round in the 2020-21 school year was destroyed by the pandemic shutdown.

"We played seven games last season and two were against the Tommies," McKenzie said. "They got us both times."

What's this conference like without them?

"It has been a little bit of both," McKenzie said. "When you sit back, it really is weird not playing them. And we have good rivalries in this conference, but we're not going to have one that equals St. Thomas.

"On the other side, I played here, I've been either an assistant or head coach for 16 years, and this is the deepest the conference has been with competitive teams."

A few hours after McKenzie said this, Macalester was providing a bullet point to his theory. The Scots, sixth in the 11-team conference, rallied from a 13-point deficit to defeat No. 2 seed Augsburg 76-74.

Coach Abe Woldeslassie's upstarts will play St. John's for the automatic berth in the Division III NCAA tournament on Sunday at Warner Palestra.

"I'm really happy for Abe and his assistant, Conner Nord," John Tauer said. "Abe's done an amazing job in four years there. He started his college career as a Tommie and Conner was a very good player for us."

Tauer is the St. Thomas coach. A couple of Division I transfers fell through and the Tommies have played in the Summit League with the same collection of Division III-recruited athletes that Tauer felt had a chance to win a national title in 2021, if COVID hadn't ruled the world.

The Tommies honored their collection of seven seniors at Saturday night's season finale, a 95-74 home victory over Nebraska Omaha. Counting the abbreviated 7-0 in 2021, those seniors were 57-8 in their first three years in D-III.

Playing in D-I this season, the Tommies went 4-14 in the Summit and 10-20 overall (with three nonconference victories over D-III opponents).

"These players have competed incredibly for us," Tauer said. "I think 10 or 15 years from now, when the Tommies are well past this transition and have started a winning tradition in Division I, these players should be on a mural here for having started it all for us."

A positive ending to a tough first D-I season

The St. Thomas women's basketball team closed its season and put an end to a 13-game losing streak with a 61-56 road victory over Nebraska Omaha on Saturday.

Coach Ruth Sinn's Tommies started Summit League play with a 3-1 record, then went from Jan. 13 until Saturday without a victory. Erin Norling, a graduate transfer from Wayne (Neb.) State, led the Tommies with 26 points.

The Tommies finished 7-21 in their first year in Division I. In the seven preceding seasons as a D-III powerhouse, Sinn's Tommies lost a total of 18 games, with five in NCAA tournament play. They went through four MIAC regular seasons unbeaten (18-0) in a period of five years: 2015, '17, '18 and '19.