St. Thomas back on scene in Salem

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John Nance, along with Tommy Hannon, help lead St. Thomas back to Salem after playing key roles in the Tommies' 2011 title win.
Photo by Ryan Coleman,

By Brian Falzarano

Two years later, Tommy Hannon and his teammates from that fateful weekend are returning to the Salem Civic Center, site of where the St. Thomas men's basketball team hoisted the Walnut and Bronze as the best team in the land back in 2011.

Two years later, Hannon and his six teammates from that title team return to this southwestern Virginia city on two of the final steps of their final mission. Compared to a couple of brackets ago when they clipped down the nets, the challenge this time around is unique for the Tommies and the other seven teams arriving in Salem this weekend: Win Friday in the Elite Eight, then again Saturday in the Final Four, and only then will a title-game ticket be punched for April 7 in Atlanta.

Hannon is one of five seniors on his top-ranked St. Thomas (29-1) squad, having played an important role in delivering his team to its shining moment. Although those are days he remembers fondly, knowing the experience could serve him and his teammates well this weekend, he is only focused only upon Friday's tip-off against No. 8 Williams (26-4) as the next step toward another championship.

“I know what it's like to win it,” the 6-7 center said. “I don't want to come home after not getting it done.”

Unlike the excitement of two seasons ago, the Tommies' veterans are taking a cooler approach coming into Salem. Instead of getting swept up the scene, the five current seniors and three juniors who played on the 2011 team are instilling a sense of focus into their younger teammates; most of the upperclassmen will room with an underclassmen to further enforce the mission behind their flight east.

“This isn't just a vacation or a trip to us, it's a business trip and we've got to get to the national championship,” senior guard John Nance said.

What might help the Tommies most of all is what they just experienced last Saturday in their final home game against No. 12 Calvin.

For all of St. Thomas' domination across this season, it all came down to one possession last Saturday. The Tommies led by 15 with 17:19 remaining, appeared poised for an easy trip into the Elite Eight, before some shaky foul shooting (9-for-22) and uncharacteristically sloppy ball-handling (15 turnovers) forced them to find a level of resolve rarely seen through their first 29 games but all so necessary to secure a 63-62, Sweet 16 victory.

Head coach John Tauer often tells his team they will need to win a variety of different ways as they work their way through the brackets. A blowout. Needing to hit free throws in the final 60 seconds. And, as was the case against Calvin, make a crucial defensive stand with the clock ticking towards zero.

Of their previous 28 victories, only five were decided by double-digit outcomes. None came down to a final trip down the floor.

“When there's not much on the line, you're a lot more free,” Nance said. “But those close games will help you execute down the stretch.”

Said Hannon: “That gave us some confidence we can win a close game against a top team. I think it's good that we got a close game, that we needed a stop to win and it came down to one possession.”

Although Tauer laughed when Hannon's statement was relayed -- “Younger guys have stronger hearts than their coaches,” he said -- last Saturday's experience could become a factor should St. Thomas again face the white-knuckle times of being tied or up one with time melting away and a season on the line.

Just as sure, the coach knows the experience from that championship season will eliminate that “ooh and aah feeling” teams can experience on their first trips together under a national spotlight. Williams also returns plenty of talent from the team that appeared in the 2011 national semifinals, although the current version is two years older, perhaps two years better, and a team Tauer said is as offensively “diverse a group as we'll see.”

This could make the first of the national quarterfinals the must-see game of Friday.

“It comes down to who plays best for that 40 minutes or whatever it takes,” Tauer said.

Of St. Thomas' five seniors, only Hannon (11.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 59.4 FG%) and Nance (9.6 points, 2.5 assists, 54.6 FG%), former high school teammates at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minn., played in the national-championship victory over Wooster.

Then there is Noah Kaiser (7.0 points, 56.2 FG%), who accepted a reserve role after previously starting and hit the game-winning 3-pointer, just his sixth this season, against Calvin with 1:13 left. Will DeBerg (12.5 points, 45.2 FG%, 41.3 3FG%, 84.4 FT%) is a sharpshooting guard whose defense have improved his versatility. And then there is Drew Matthews, a seldom-used forward who rehabbed his way back from offseason hip surgery just to give the Tommies additional depth.

All five of them made the trip to Salem two seasons ago, as did juniors Josh Pella, Zach Riedeman, and Erik Tengwall.

This trip back to Salem will not win the Tommies a second national championship in three years. But it could get them two steps closer to clipping down the nets two weeks from now in Atlanta.

“This is what I've dreamed of since we won it all,” Hannon said. “Being able to play your last game and win it all would be the best way to go out, me as well as the other four seniors. We're really go to give it our all.

“I like our chances with our depth and our veteran leadership. It would be the icing on the cake for my career at St. Thomas.”

A repeat of 2011 is still a few wins away. Two years later, St. Thomas is back where it last hoisted the Walnut and Bronze.