Benedictine's Adam Reynolds defends against St. Thomas', Will Dunn (14) during the first half of an NCAA Division III college basketball championship game at the Salem Civic Center, Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Salem, Va. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)
Don Petersen
March 19, 2016

SALEM, Va. (AP) Taylor Montero sat with a piece of a national championship net laying on the table in front of him and paused when he was reminded that he and four fellow St. Thomas of Minnesota seniors don't have to get up for practice tomorrow, or probably ever again.

''I just ended my career a national champion,'' he said. ''It can't get much better than that.''

Montero had 27 points and 11 rebounds and Ryan Saarela had 26 points and 10 rebounds on Saturday night, leading the Tommies to an 82-76 victory over Benedictine of Illinois, and their second Division III men's basketball national championship in the past six seasons.

The Tommies (30-3) saw a 12-point second-half lead shrink to 73-71 with 1:34 to play, but Montero scored on a drive, Cortez Tillman followed an Eagles miss with a pair of free throws and Montero added another free throw, making it 78-71, and St. Thomas held on.

''This team's really good at staying composed, and it starts with (coach John Tauer) and it starts with the captains,'' said guard Grant Schaeffer, who added 14 points. ''We all looked around and said, `Hey, let's go. It's game time. It's winning time.'''

The Tommies, playing in their third Final Four in six years, also won in 2011.

''It's a dream come true,'' Tauer said. ''It's hard to believe and they've earned every single bit of it.''

They got this one primarily because of Montero and Saarela, who finished a combined 19 for 25 from the field.

''I saw the ball go through the basket a couple times and I just started feeling it,'' said Saarela, who was 11 of 13.

Lucas Johnson led the Eagles with 21 points and 11 rebounds and John Dodson scored 13. Benedictine (31-1), in its first championship game, was stymied in its bid to become the first Division III team to complete a perfect season since Wisconsin-Platteville in 1998.

One of the most glaring differences came at the free throw line, where the Tommies were 27 of 36 to the Eagles 6 of 14.

''Thirty-six attempts to 14 is pretty tough to take, but maybe we should have been a little more aggressive going to the basket,'' Benedictine coach Keith Bunkenburg said. He attempted to express his pride in his team, but was overcome with emotion.

Trailing 67-55, the Eagles outscored St. Thomas 16-6 to pull within 73-71 on Johnson's dunk off a turnover with 1:34 to play.

But Montero scored on a driving left-handed layup, sparking the closing run.

''At the end of the day, we left it out there,'' Johnson said. ''We played the best we could tonight, and that's really it. There's really nothing for us to be too upset about. We played well and they just played a little better.''

St. Thomas opened the second half with an 8-2 spurt to open a 43-32 lead, matching its largest to that point.

The Eagles rebounded, going on a 10-5 run to close it to 56-51 with 11:15 to play, but the Tommies immediately scored nine of the next 11 points to open their largest lead at 65-53. Saarela had the first six points in the run, and Schaeffer capped it with a pair of free throws.

The Tommies led by as many as 11 in the first half, but Benedictine closed it to 37-32 by halftime.

TIP-INS

St. Thomas: The Tommies outrebounded their opponents by an average of 6.5 this season, while Benedictine had a 14.7 average advantage on the boards. In the title game, the Tommies won the glass 36-32. ... The Tommies were following the lead of their football team in reaching the championship in Salem. The football team played for the title in December but lost 49-35.

Benedictine: The Eagles shot 47.7 percent from the field (31 for 65) but finished just 6 for 14 from the free throw line.

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