Home regional gives UMD women's basketball new chapter for history books
UMD will host the eight-team Central Region tournament beginning Friday vs. Southern Nazarene.
DULUTH — At this point in the career of Brooke Olson and this era of Minnesota Duluth women’s basketball she has shaped, it’s easy to forget there are still superlatives she and the Bulldogs have not yet checked off.
Sunday night, when the bracket for the NCAA Central Region tournament was announced, the Bulldogs captured one more, as they’ll host the eight-team bracket starting at 5 p.m. Friday in a quarterfinal vs. Southern Nazarene.
“Brooke was saying that she didn’t feel like it was our last (home) game when we were playing Bemidji, and I had a similar feeling,” UMD coach Mandy Pearson said at a social event Sunday night for players and supporters to watch the tournament pairings being unveiled.
Pearson was referring to UMD’s last regular-season home game on Feb. 18, in which Olson blitzed the Beavers for a career-high 40 points. The Bulldogs then went on the road and won the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament for the third consecutive season. That tournament championship and some help elsewhere allowed UMD to claim the top seed and regional hosting honors for the first time in program history.
“We just made our priority to have fun and just get better every single day, and that started the day after we lost to (Nebraska-)Kearney last year. I think our mentality is to just trust each other, to accept and love every single person on this team, and everyone has their role and we appreciate every single person on the floor,” Olson said.
Since Olson first suited up for the Bulldogs on Nov. 11, 2018, UMD has posted a winning percentage of .832 and won 114 games, though only one of them in the NCAA tournament, vs. Emporia State in 2021. The Bulldogs lost to Nebraska-Kearney in the 2022 quarterfinals and 2021 semifinals. The 2020 tournament was canceled while the Bulldogs were en route due to the initial outbreak of COVID-19, and UMD lost in the quarterfinals to Minnesota State Moorhead in 2019.
However, none of those games were in Duluth. If ever there was occasion to make some more history, it’s now.
“We came in wanting to win a national championship as freshmen, and so I think that’s what we’ve kept our eyes on the entire time … We’ve done everything else, and so this is our time to really make a run in the tournament, and I think we’re really excited with the group that we have,” Olson said.
Though Olson is a bona fide star and obvious national player of the year candidate, she is not a one-woman show. Four other Bulldogs average at least seven points per game, and UMD’s second and third leading scorers, respectively, are Ella Gilbertson, who hasn’t started a game since mid-January, and Taya Hakamaki, who hasn’t started a game at all this season.
Olson said UMD believes it has the “best bench in the country,” and fellow ‘super senior’ Maesyn Thiesen concurred.
“Sometimes the team we’re playing in practice is harder than the team we’re gonna play that weekend, and that’s just prepared us to be ready for anybody and anything that anyone throws at us,” she said.
UMD will need wins on Friday, Saturday and in Monday’s regional final to advance to the NCAA Elite Eight, March 20-22 in St. Joseph, Missouri. The national championship game will be held April 1 in Dallas in conjunction with the Division I Final Four. It’s a long journey, but the Bulldogs are up for it.
“Every single team that popped up on our bracket, I went, ‘Wow, that’s a good team, that’s a great team.’ It really gives us a great opportunity to come out and play our best basketball against some of the better teams in the country. I’m just really excited to see what we can do,” Pearson said.
Scouting the Storm
Minnesota Duluth’s quarterfinal opponent on Friday, Southern Nazarene (27-4), was the champion of the Great American Conference, a 12-team league of schools in Arkansas and Oklahoma. The Storm are located in Bethany, Oklahoma, a suburb of Oklahoma City.
Despite winning their last 17 games dating back to mid-January, the Storm were only fifth in the GAC in scoring offense at 67.5 points per game. Their defense was second in the league at 57.3 and 26th in the nation (UMD is 12th in the same category).
Olson may have to do battle down low with the Storm’s Hannah Giddey, a 6-foot-2-inch junior from Australia, who is the NCAA Division II leader in blocks with 92 (3 per game). The transfer from Division I Oral Roberts is the Storm’s third-leading scorer (12.5 ppg) and second-best rebounder (7.9) and was the GAC Defensive Player of the Year.
Giddey had 24 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in the GAC championship game, a 57-46 slugfest with Harding that pitted the league’s top two teams and top two scoring defenses against each other.
Senior Cassandra Awatt was the Storm’s only GAC First Team selection, the 5-foot-8-inch senior guard averaging a double-double with 13.2 points and a team-leading 8.9 boards, while 5-foot-10-inch junior guard Georgia Adams, also an Australian, was the team’s leading scorer at 14.8 points per game.
The winner of Friday’s game will play at 7:30 Saturday against No. 4 Central Missouri or No. 5 Minnesota State Mankato, which will play the nightcap to Friday’s quadrupleheader.
The early games on Friday at Romano Gym, starting at noon, will feature No. 3 Missouri Southern vs. No. 6 Augustana. Missouri Southern defeated UMD 54-51 in Kansas City, Missouri on the opening weekend of the season, while the Vikings won at Romano Gym, 53-51, on Jan. 28. The second game features No. 2 Nebraska-Kearney, which eliminated UMD from the last two NCAA tournaments, vs. No. 7 Pittsburg (Kan.) State.