Sean Hoffman was able to throw down this dunk for Williams, but the Ephs couldn’t get the win.
Sean Hoffman was able to throw down this dunk for Williams, but the Ephs couldn’t get the win. (Don Petersen / Special to The Eagle)

SALEM, Va. -- When you're the No. 1 team in the country and have been beating teams by an average of 21 points a game, finding yourself down by 12 in the first half is an unusual position to be in.

That's exactly where St. Thomas found itself in Friday's NCAA Division III Elite Eight game with Williams. The Ephs had built a 12-point lead on the top-ranked Tommies and seemed to be scoring with relative ease.

"We dug a little bit of a hole, actually a lot of a hole in the first half. All year, we've been resilient but haven't been in a lot of games" like Friday's, St. Thomas coach John Tauer said. "The look in their eyes for the first 10 minutes, I didn't think was a typical one from our team."

Fortunately for the Tommies, and unfortunately for the Ephs, St. Thomas shook off those early issues. St. Thomas rallied to take an 8-point lead in the final minute of the second half but had to hold on to beat Williams 82-79.

"The last five minutes of the first half, I really felt that was the turning point for us," said Tauer. "They kind of got that look back in their eyes like we're were going to trust each other and if we're going to go down, we're going to go down swinging."

Two adjustments, in attitude and on defense, helped the Tommies pull ahead of the Ephs in the second half.

Once St. Thomas started making baskets, it was able to use a full-court press against Williams that made it a little harder for the Ephs to set up their offense. In the offensive end, the Tommies played more straight up man-to-man, and didn't try to double-team shooters.

James Klemm and Taylor Epley, who like to shoot 3-pointers from the corners, were forced out of their comfort zones a bit by the defense.

"They made our forwards come up a lot more to try and help out," said Klemm. "When they started forcing us to come up, they took us out of those plays and forced us to go to other options."

For much of the first half, Williams played like it was the No. 1 team in the nation. The Ephs were up 47-39, but had shot 65 percent from the floor and 6 of 13 from 3-point range.

"In the first half, they had our heads spinning," said Tauer. "To say that hurts me a little bit. Coach [Mike] Maker does an unbelievable job and we knew that watching film. We saw them here in 2011.

"What they run on offense is really hard to guard. They got up 12 and it was like they were playing ‘Horse.' "

All of that changed in the second half. Williams did shoot 12 of 24 from the floor in the second half, but their shots weren't as easy to get as they were in the first half.

"I think our half-court defense [in the second half], even as well as we shot, was the difference," the St. Thomas coach said. "We capitalized on turnovers. It was active hands. It was guys talking and communicating on the court and five guys playing as one."

Maybe the defensive adjustment was one of attitude, too. That's why St. Thomas is playing tonight.