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Lonnie Robinson one of many reasons undefeated Tommies rank No. 1 in hoops

Johnny Tauer, the recruiting coordinator and assistant coach for the University of St.

Johnny Tauer, the recruiting coordinator and assistant coach for the University of St. Thomas men’s basketball team, had just finished telling a story about senior swingman Lonnie Robinson when Robinson himself walked into Schoenecker Arena for practice on Thursday.

“Hey Lonnie,” Tauer said. “Remember the play we ran for you?”

That’s a running gag around the Tommies.

Robinson is Coach Steve Fritz’s defensive stopper. The Tommies never call any set plays designed for Robinson to shoot. But in a game earlier this season, the Tommies ran a play to the wrong side of the court, and Robinson ended up taking the shot. “My first play in four years,” he said.

And that’s the closest the 6-foot-2 Robinson has ever come to complaining about his place in the undefeated Tommies’ offense.

Key role for Tommies
A product of Brooklyn Park and Osseo High, Robinson plays a modest but vital role for the 18-0 Tommies, who this week became the first team from Minnesota to land the No. 1 ranking in the poll since its inception 10 years ago.

The Tommies remained Division III’s last unbeaten team after crushing Augsburg, 87-57 on Wednesday night. They play at Macalaster on Saturday afternoon.

But Robinson’s legacy at St. Thomas is believed to be unique among team sports participants in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

Robinson also pitched four seasons for the Tommies’ baseball team. If St. Thomas wins the MIAC regular season basketball title — which seems likely, given their four-game lead over second-place Bethel with seven to play — Robinson will have been part of eight regular-season conference championship teams out of a possible eight.

Lonnie Robinson
Lonnie Robinson

Count post-season tournaments, and so far Robinson has played for 13 champions in 14 attempts. No other MIAC athlete has played on teams that won regular season and playoff championships in two sports in back-to-back seasons.

“I’m just a part of the team,” said Robinson, who compiled a 21-3 record in baseball and was named conference pitcher of the year in 2007. “I don’t take any credit for the championships. I’ve just been part of some great teams.”

Robinson signed with the independent St. Paul Saints last year after completing his college baseball eligibility. Besides handling the rookie chores like lugging the ball bag to the bullpen and fetching water for the veterans, Robinson endured something he wasn’t used to — losing. The Saints struggled to a 13-27 mark with Robinson, one more loss than the Tommies’ baseball and basketball teams lost, combined, over two seasons (109-26).

Losing with Saints a weird, new experience
“It was actually kind of weird,” Robinson said. “I’m just not used to losing. That team, we just weren’t very good. We went out and played hard, but we kept coming up on the short end of the stick every night.”

The basketball season is going much better.

Every game, Robinson draws the opposing team’s best scorer, be it a shooting guard, small forward or power forward. His job description: “Be all over the other team’s best offensive player, make him very uncomfortable, make him work for every shot that he gets.”

Robinson does his job so well that he made the MIAC all-defensive team last season, and probably will again this season.

Offensively, Robinson’s 7.8 scoring average ranks fifth for the Tommies, and he leads the team in assists (53) and free-throw shooting percentage (.789). Wednesday night provided a rare glimpse of Robinson’s offensive skills, as he sank three of four 3-point attempts in a 13-point night.

St. Thomas only led by 35-32 at the half, but Robinson’s right-wing 3-pointer started a 19-2 run in the opening minutes of the second half that put the game away. And Robinson helped limit all-MIAC guard Jon Cassens to five shots and 11 points. Over four seasons, St. Thomas is 27-2 when Robinson scores at least nine points. 

“You saw last night he could score a little more if he wanted to,” Fritz said. “But he loves to play and he loves to compete. That’s why we’ve been successful. He and the other three seniors (Al McCoy, B.J. Viau and Brett Tuma) are willing to do anything to make us better. He knows if he shuts down the other team’s big scorer, we’ve got a great chance to win. He knows his role.”

St. Thomas lacks a singular outstanding player but makes up for it with depth and hustle. Ten players average at least 10 minutes a game, and the Tommies wear out teams with waves of fresh legs playing a suffocating man-to-man defense.

Thursday at practice, between full-court drills and a scrimmage, Fritz had his players go 30 minutes virtually non-stop, with five backups subbing in for the 10 on the court.

The last time the Tommies went this far into a season undefeated was 1994-95, a 27-0 run that ended in the second round of the NCAA playoffs with a 94-74 loss to Nebraska Wesleyan. (Tauer played on that team.) And St. Thomas has more incentive to take this unbeaten run farther.

This may be the last year the Tommies play in Schoenecker Arena. The school’s Board of Trustees is expected to vote next month on a proposal to build a new athletic complex on the site of the 28-year-old arena, complete with a gymnasium, a 200-meter indoor track, a new pool, a weight room and athletic offices.

Robinson, a business and marketing managing major, would love to finish his Tommies’ career with two more titles. For now, he just concentrates on playing his part.

“Everything we thought about him when we recruited him, he’s exceeded the expectation,”  Tauer said. “If you could have 15 Lonnie Robinsons on your team, you may not have great scorers or great ball-handlers, but you may never lose a game. That’s probably the greatest compliment.”

And one that, so far, is holding true.