Entering last week, St. Olaf men’s basketball still clung onto hope that it could rebound from an early season slump to reach the MIAC tournament and keep its aspirations for returning to the NCAA tournament alive, a stage it has reached in each of the past three seasons.
Considering the team began conference play with a disappointing 1-4 record, even having hopes of reaching the playoffs this late in the season could be considered an accomplishment in and of itself. A late season surge over weaker conference opponents St. Mary’s and Gustavus put the Oles back in the playoff conversation entering the regular season’s final week. Sitting at seventh place, St. Olaf needed to climb over Augsburg in order to advance in the standings and sneak into the playoffs as the sixth seed.
The week began with an impressive victory over eventual conference co-champion St. Thomas on Feb. 13. Austin Majeskie ’17 carried the Oles against the Tommies with 29 points on an impressive 13-16 shots from the floor, including a pair of late buckets to seal a convincing nine-point win for the Oles. Robert Tobroxen ’18 also chipped in 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds of his own. The win gave the Oles a surprising season sweep against St. Thomas, considered the heavyweight of the MIAC, a feat not even the past three NCAA tournament-qualifying St. Olaf squads could pull off. The Oles hadn’t topped St. Thomas a single time since 2011 – this winter, they pulled off the upset twice for the first time in 20 years. The suprising win set up a highly anticipated clash with cross-town rival Carleton two days later, one suddenly surrounded with real playoff implications for St. Olaf.
Unfortunately, the Oles were simply outmatched by the frontcourt size of the Knights, who featured the MIAC’s top two leading rebounders, Kevin Grow and Freddie Gillespie. Standing at 6 feet 8 inches and 6 feet 9 inches respectively, their size disrupted the Oles at both ends of the floor, resulting in a lopsided 67-49 loss for St. Olaf. Carleton’s height advantage forced St. Olaf into an abysmal 38.5 percent shooting night and its only sub-50 point game this season, a disappointing display on Ole Pride night that dealt a severe blow to the team’s momentum heading into the season finale.
Despite the crushing defeat, St. Olaf still faced a high-stakes showdown with Augsburg to determine the final MIAC tournament spot. Entering the game with identical conference records, the Oles would secure their spot as the sixth seed if they could best their rivals.
However, luck simply wasn’t on their side – Augsburg edged the Oles by a score of 69-66 after a three-point attempt at the buzzer by St. Olaf’s Matthew Stroud ’19 heartbreakingly deflected off the rim. Majeskie and Tobroxen once again led the Oles, as they did for much of the year, with 14 and 11 points respectively. Nate Albers ’20 also added 11 points to go along with 6 rebounds. On Senior Day, Daniel Katuka ’17 and Sam Lagus ’17 were inserted into the starting lineup, providing the Oles some good minutes in what was their final collegiate appearance. Unfortunately for the Oles, their efforts weren’t enough to propel the team past the Auggies and into the MIAC tournament for a rematch with Carleton.
Despite the defeat, looking forward to next season reveals that the Oles should be set up for success. Only three seniors, Majeskie, Katuka and Lagus, will be lost to graduation, and the team will add Ben Scheffley ’19 and Frank Delaney ’19 back into the lineup after the two starters were sidelined with injuries in the latter portion of the season. This year’s team featured a very young roster, and while that may not have ultimately translated into a playoff appearance, the returning athletes will enter next season with valuable experience.
The young Oles showed enormous potential by knocking off St. Thomas twice, undoubtedly the highlight accomplishment of the 2016-17 season. While this season featured less consistency than the previous three, the future still looks bright for a St. Olaf team that will surely be playing with a chip on its shoulder next season, eager to return to the NCAA tournament.