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NCAA Elite Eight semifinal: Bulldogs headed to national title game after defeating Catawba

Brooke Olson scored 34 points while point guard Maesyn Thiesen played all 40 minutes.

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Minnesota Duluth players celebrate after defeating Catawba 70-59 in the NCAA Elite Eight semifinals on Wednesday at St. Joseph Civic Arena in St. Joseph, Missouri.
Arianne Boma / NCAA

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. โ€” In the biggest game of their lives to this point, Minnesota Duluth fifth-year seniors Brooke Olson and Maesyn Thiesen made sure they'll get a bigger one.

Olson led all scorers with 34 points and Thiesen fearlessly directed the UMD offense through full-court pressure from beginning to end as the second-seeded Bulldogs defeated sixth-seeded Catawba 70-59 in the NCAA Elite Eight semifinals Wednesday night at St. Joseph Civic Arena, earning the Bulldogs a trip to the national championship game on April 1 in Dallas.

"No one's ever done this in UMD history, so I'm really just excited to keep making history and hopefully make some more and just relish the moment as much as we can," Olson said.

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Minnesota Duluth's Brooke Olson attacks the basket during the second half of the NCAA Elite Eight semifinals vs. Catawba on Wednesday at St. Joseph Civic Arena in St. Joseph, Missouri. Olson had a game-high 34 points as the Bulldogs advanced to the national championship with a 70-59 win.
Arianne Boma / NCAA

The Bulldogs managed to spread their fouls around in a tightly called game. Olson picked up a second foul late in the first quarter and instead of watching the rest of the half like she did in Monday's quarterfinals, UMD coach Mandy Pearson put her back in, where she scored seven points as UMD led 38-33 at halftime.

After the break, Olson was the only player on either team to score from the field in the third quarter until Ella Gilbertson's 3 just before the horn made it 48-39. Catawba was 0-for-11 from the field in the third quarter, though free throws and UMD struggling to convert on the offensive end kept them in it.

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Pearson said that choosing not to go for blocks as Catawba attacked the basket eased the foul issues and kept them from getting the shots they wanted.

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Minnesota Duluth's Taytum Rhoades contests a shot attempt from Catawba's Lyrik Thorne during the second half of an Elite Eight semifinal game Wednesday at St. Joseph Civic Arena in St. Joseph, Missouri.
Arianne Boma / NCAA

"In the second half, we were running with them but we stopped trying to swat at them and I thought that made a really big difference. One, they wanted contact to help create shots, and two, I don't think they were getting to the free-throw line as much after that," she said.

Though UMD had foul trouble, Catawba did too, including to formidable center Sara McIntosh, who was Olson's primary defender.

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Minnesota Duluth's Maesyn Thiesen attempts to block a layup attempt by Catawba's Nala Baker during the NCAA Elite Eight semifinals Wednesday at St. Joseph Civic Arena in St. Joseph, Missouri,
Arianne Boma / NCAA

As expected, Catawba applied defensive pressure throughout the game. The Bulldogs committed 15 turnovers against a defense that averages 16 per game but kept the kinds of mistakes Catawba could cash in for easy layups to a minimum, and passed the ball effectively as seven players combined to dish out 14 assists.

Thiesen was key to UMD keeping its wits with Pearson saying "she never gets enough credit for what she does for our team."

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Minnesota Duluth players celebrate their victory over Catawba in the NCAA Elite Eight semifinals on Wednesday with a ceremonial 'ticket' to the national championship game.
Arianne Boma / NCAA

"She was incredible tonight. ... She continues to just be a phenomenal leader for our program. She's poised, she's smart. While she's playing 40 minutes and having to do most of the ballhandling, while being pressured, she's also guarding their top-scoring guard," Pearson said.

That guard, senior Lyrik Thorne, was in foul trouble and shot 3-for-18 from the field for 11 points on her lowest shooting percentage and her joint-lowest scoring total of the season.

Olson was the game's leading scorer, but it's safe to say Thiesen was the game's leading leader.

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"I remember Maesyn was just 'Get it and go!' She was screaming at me. She definitely willed me to just get it and go. That trust in her and that motivation from her really helped me just be like, 'OK, if she needs me to do this, I'll do it," Olson said.

Janiya Downs drilled a 3 early in the fourth quarter to snap Catawba out of its shooting slump and was her team's leading scorer, but her 20 points came on 5-of-17 from the field and included seven free throws.

"We didn't get shots to fall. I feel like if we could have made some baskets maybe we could have turned some momentum," Catawba coach Terence McCutcheon said.

A banked-in trey from Jada Porter made it a four-point game, 56-52, with 5:21 to play and Catawba had multiple chances to get even closer, but Olson scored nine more points in the last four minutes to put the game away.

The Bulldogs will face No. 1-ranked Ashland at American Airlines Center in search of the program's first national championship.

The weekend in Dallas will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the implementation of Title IX by staging all three NCAA championship games at the same site.

While Pearson, Olson and Ella Gilbertson were discussing the accomplishment and the event to come, UMD athletic pioneer and former women's basketball coach Karen Stromme, who is working for the NCAA as a coaches' liaison this week, was in the interview room. As UMD celebrated history, both for itself and for women's basketball writ large, three generations of pride reflected off each other.

"I don't know if it's relief, I think it's just more pride," Olson said. "Of knowing that we were able to do this and that we've been talking about it for five years. Everyone's been telling us, be patient, be patient, we're right there. This year has just been an amazing year. I'm so glad I'm doing it with everyone beside me but also this is a credit to every single person in our program since it began."

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Catawba โ€” 18-15-6-20โ€”59

Minn.-Duluth โ€” 19-19-10-22โ€”70

Catawba โ€” Janiya Downs 20, Sara McIntosh 9, Jada Porter 3, Lyrik Thorne 11, Miyah Dubose 2, Mary Spry 8, Nala Baker 6; FG: 16-58; FT: 22-25; 3-point goals: Downs 3, Porter 1, Thorne 1.

Minnesota Duluth โ€” Brooke Olson 34, Madelyn Granica 3, Kaylee Nelson 2, Maesyn Thiesen 8, Taya Hakamaki 7, Ella Gilbertson 14, Lexi Karge 2; FG: 24-50; FT: 18-24; 3-point goals: Olson 1, Granica 1, Hakamaki 1, Gilbertson 1.

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