National title game in Dallas may come down to guard play

With Ashland featuring a deep and talented frontcourt, the Bulldogs may not be able to rely on a huge output from Brooke Olson.

Women's basketball players at a practice
Minnesota Duluth guard Maesyn Thiesen, second from left, passes the ball to a teammate during practice Monday at Romano Gymnasium in Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Minnesota Duluth may have to face an uncomfortable truth in Saturday’s national championship game. If there’s anyone in the country who can slow down national player of the year Brooke Olson, it’s probably top-seeded and No. 1-ranked Ashland.

The Eagles have four players 6 feet or taller to throw at the 6-foot-2 Olson, all of whom average at least 15 minutes per game, with three of them averaging double figures in scoring and two averaging more than five rebounds per game.

So if the Bulldogs want to bring a national championship home from Dallas, it may come down to guard play.

Minnesota Duluth's Taytum Rhoades drives to the basket for a layup during the NCAA Central Regional final vs. Missouri Southern State on March 13, 2023 at Romano Gym in Duluth.
Terry Norton / UMD Athletics

“I think the greatest strength of our offense is we move the ball really well and our players have learned not to force things,” UMD coach Mandy Pearson said in a press conference streamed from Dallas on Thursday.

“I'm really hopeful that as the game goes on that our players can make some in-game adjustments right away that can allow us to find the open person, however it is that they're going to attack us.”


Ashland coach Kari Pickens can achieve an unprecedented Division II trifecta this weekend by winning a national championship as a player (2013), assistant coach (2017) and head coach at the same school. She’s been crunching tape on the Bulldogs, saying of their stunning comeback to win the Central Region championship game on March 13, “I have never seen a comeback like that before. They just played like they were going to win.”

“We definitely have our hands full with them because they know how to win. They have a lot of hunger to do it. So we have to be able to, I think, dictate the tempo and attack them in different ways because we've got to be able to get them on their heels a little bit, and one of the best ways I think to do that is by attacking them in transition offense and also doing our best to shut down Brooke Olson and making someone else really step up.”

The Bulldogs’ second- and third-best scoring options this season have been Ella Gilbertson (10.3 ppg) and Taya Hakamaki (9.1 ppg), even though neither is a regular starter.

If it comes down to outside shooting, the Bulldogs have made more 3-pointers (213-171) at a higher clip (31.9% to 31.0%) than their opponents, though the Eagles have run much more of their offense from outside the arc, making 381 this season at a 40.3% rate. Senior guard Hallie Heidemann has made 102 alone this season.

“The motion offense that we run should hopefully — fingers crossed — allow us to make some great reads and get some open looks,” Pearson said.

Minnesota Duluth's Ella Gilbertson releases a shot over the defense of Missouri Southern State's Amaya Johns in the second half of the NCAA Central Regional final on Monday, March 13 at Romano Gym in Duluth.
Terry Norton / UMD Athletics

Floor general Maesyn Thiesen will be vital in finding those open looks for UMD in what will be her last game.

“Maesyn's toughness is incredible. Just to see somebody that can continue to be that focused — we were joking in the lobby. I don't know if you've seen her pinky, but it's like all messed up. She's played 40 minutes against pressing teams with her fingers all taped up and her hand looks a mess, and she's so incredibly tough and resilient that it's been phenomenal for me to watch that,” Pearson said.

The Bulldogs landed in Texas on Wednesday and have enjoyed the complementary events that have involved all eight teams in three NCAA divisions competing in Dallas this weekend. It’s the culmination of a year-long learning experience for Pearson.


“I'd say the biggest thing in the past few years is this group has allowed me to be myself. Like I've said that a few times, where I can walk into the gym and be myself and walk in having fun and joking around with them, and they can flip a switch when we need to get down to business and get better.”

Women's basketball player prepares to take a shot during a practice
Minnesota Duluth guard Maesyn Thiesen prepares to shoot the basketball during practice Monday at Romano Gymnasium in Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

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