Brandon Veale column: Bulldogs will miss Thiesen as much as Olson

The fifth-year senior point guard was the pilot as the Bulldogs rolled to the national championship game.

college women play basketball
Minnesota Duluth guard Maesyn Thiesen (32) uses hand signals to communicate with her teammates during the NCAA Division II National Championship at the American Airlines Center on Saturday in Dallas.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

DALLAS — During the 2023 NCAA Division II women's basketball tournament, it was indisputable that Brooke Olson was the engine that got the Bulldogs to the national championship game, but guard Maesyn Thiesen was UMD's pilot.

The UMD and NCAA record books will be dotted with Olson's contributions for years to come, but Thiesen made a quieter but equally vital impact.

Thiesen, who played all 40 minutes in the national semifinals against Catawba on March 22, came out of the game once, for 88 seconds at the end of the first quarter, on Saturday in Dallas. The next-highest minutes load was Taya Hakamaki (Cromwell-Wright), who played 30 coming off the bench.

Thiesen's box score totals from the national championship game were nice, if hardly eye-popping: 11 points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals, three turnovers. Look deeper and you'll see that UMD coach Mandy Pearson is losing not only a starting point guard, but a leader who can do everything, from providing social media best practices to being able to read the game in real time and directly call the play that led to Ella Gilbertson's game-winning 3-pointer in the regional finals.

Minnesota Duluth's Maesyn Thiesen holds up the strand of net she cut down after the NCAA Central Region championship game on Monday, March 13 at Romano Gym in Duluth.
Terry Norton / UMD Athletics

"I'd love to take credit for that one, but that's my point guard right there," Pearson said after the March 13 classic against Missouri Southern State.


"That kid is tough. One of the coolest things about Maesyn is that her role changes every single game based on what the defense is doing and even year by year. ... This year, she's been more of a distributor and just keeps our offense going and that's a huge role to have when we have so many playmakers."

Olson then took the microphone and interjected, "Also, Maesyn's just a winner. Honestly, she's a winner."

Olson's impact on this team and on the entire Division II women's game over the last five years is obvious and unavoidable. Casual readers may not remember Thiesen's role on this team five, 10 or 20 years from now other than an inevitable induction into the UMD athletic hall of fame at a point to be determined, but UMD couldn't have had one without the other and made it to the national championship.

Here's a handful of other notes from the tournament trail from DNT sports editor Brandon Veale:

Ashland was just that darned good

college women play basketball
Minnesota Duluth forward Brooke Olson (24) chases a loose ball against Ashland during the NCAA Division II National Championship at the American Airlines Center on Saturday in Dallas.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

If you'd held a gun to my head and asked me to predict the outcome of Saturday's game on the way to the arena, I probably would have said something pretty close to what actually happened.

Much of Saturday's game was pretty even between the two teams, but the second quarter was not. We knew Ashland had the interior depth to avoid getting bulldozed by Brooke Olson, and on the outside the Eagles made more than 380 3-pointers this season. Hard as it may be to believe, 7-for-20 from 3 constituted a below-average performance from Ashland in terms of both makes and percentage compared to the rest of the season.

This Ashland program has three national championships and two runner-up finishes in the last 12 years (and was undefeated in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the postseason).

Still, the Bulldogs had them on the back foot in the second half and cut a 19-point deficit to nine with 2:34 to play, but guard Hallie Heidemann and the Eagles showed their championship mettle. Coach Kari Pickens admitted she was surprised to see her fifth-year senior guard pull up for a 3 just 10 seconds into the shot clock.


"In my gut, I was like, wow, that's a fast shot, but it went in. I think they very much had the mentality of we are going to continue to stay aggressive. That's a shot she would normally take in the game. So she let it fly, and it really helped cushion the lead a little bit more," she said.

NBA stage a good idea, not necessarily a great one

excited crowd greets women's basketball players
Minnesota Duluth guard Myra Moorjani leads the team down the red carpet entrance during the NCAA Division II National Championship at the American Airlines Center on Saturday in Dallas.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

As mentioned, this year's Division II and III national championship games were moved back 10 days and to the site of the Division I Final Four in Dallas as part of a 50-year celebration of the implementation of Title IX.

There's no doubt American Airlines Center was a grand venue, the kind of place that any journalist would want to file from. I could feel the flames from the pyrotechnics from my courtside seats. And we got to cross paths with not only the big stories, but a few old friends, like WDIO-TV alumna Chelsie Brown, now covering the Iowa Hawkeyes at KCRG in Cedar Rapids.

But looking back, I don't think I'd do this every year. The listed attendance of 2,317 filled the sides of the lower bowl but no better. Further, I think an NBA arena flies a bit against the spirit of what Division II is all about. What if there was a crowd like that in a mid-sized venue, perhaps one situated on the shores of a great lake?

We know that the 2024 tournament (in its entirety) will be in St. Joseph, Missouri, and that 2025 and 26 will be hosted in Pittsburgh (at Duquesne University, not the Penguins' PPG Paints Arena).


If the NCAA does go back to this model, perhaps every five years might be the idea.

Brandon Veale is the sports editor of the News Tribune. He can be reached at

college women play basketball
Minnesota Duluth players hug after losing 78-67 to Ashland during the NCAA Division II National Championship at the American Airlines Center on Saturday in Dallas.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Brandon has been sports editor of the News Tribune since August 2021.
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