RO-MIRACLE, RO-MAGIC, ROMANO: UMD women's basketball unleashes legendary rally to reach NCAA Elite Eight

The Bulldogs were still down by 17 with 5:15 left to play in the regional final before outscoring Missouri Southern State 25-7 the rest of the way.

Minnesota Duluth players celebrate after receiving the regional championship trophy at the conclusion of a 77-76 victory over Missouri Southern State on Monday at Romano Gym in Duluth.
Terry Norton / UMD Athletics

DULUTH — Any statistical analysis of Minnesota Duluth’s position in the fourth quarter of Monday’s NCAA Central Regional final would have described the Bulldogs’ position as dire.

Down 20 in the third quarter, 17 with 5:15 to play and 11 with 2:07 left? The odds were never in their favor.

Though there is a time and place for statistical analysis, that time is not March and the place is not Romano Gym. After a rally for the ages, the Bulldogs advanced to the Elite Eight with a 77-76 home victory over Missouri Southern State.

“I never envisioned us losing. Like, really. I also was just like, we’re going to be cutting down that net, we’re going to be holding that trophy at the end of that game,” UMD fifth-year senior Brooke Olson said.

Minnesota Duluth players including, from left, Taya Hakamaki, Taytum Rhoades and Maesyn Thiesen (32) celebrate at the final buzzer of the NCAA Central Region championship game against Missouri Southern State on Monday, March 13, 2023 at Romano Gym in Duluth.
Terry Norton / UMD Athletics

UMD coach Mandy Pearson said she’s no clairvoyant, but she did have a strong sense of belief in her team.


“They put the (officially sponsored) NCAA ladder in our athletic office and I kept walking by that and I kept picturing these people walking up and cutting down the net,” she said of her players. “I think that helped keep me calm because I just had this vision that we were going to pull through.”

The top-seeded Bulldogs beat the odds and the third-seeded Lions, outscoring the visitors 25-9 in the last 5:15.

Maysen Thiesen’s 3 made it a one-possession game with 42.6 seconds left, 75-72. MSSU’s Mia Topping split two free throws on the other end before an ambitious 3-point attempt from Taya Hakamaki bounced into the hands of Taytum Rhoades under the basket: 76-74, 31 seconds to play. After a timeout, Rhoades pounced on MSSU point guard Lacy Stokes to trigger a jump ball, possession to UMD with 29 seconds left.

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, 2023 at Romano Gym in Duluth.
Terry Norton / UMD Athletics

On the ensuing possession, Rhoades bobbled the ball in her feet as an extra MSSU defender moved down to double-team her. That defender belonged to Ella Gilbertson, who had just enough opening to release what would be a game-winning 3 with 15 seconds left.

“I had faith in all of us, I knew we’d come out on top. We just had to make a big play in the moment and my teammates got me the ball,” Gilbertson said.

Missouri Southern had a chance to drop the ultimate anti-climax. The ball ended up in the hands of the Lions’ Kryslyn Jones, one of several players who had stung UMD with drives to the basket throughout the game. Running down the right side of the key, her shot was too strong off the high glass and a putback attempt was off the mark and too late to count.

After all that comes the cutting of nets and slapping of stickers on brackets and, on March 20, the NCAA Elite Eight quarterfinals in St. Joseph, Missouri.

“We have multiple playmakers on this team and it makes a huge difference in a game like this,” Pearson said.


A crowd of 1,477 people, with more yellow towels, students back from spring break and the Bulldogs’ pep band made for an atmosphere not often seen on a typical winter weekend, but none of them or their towels could keep the Lions off the scoreboard early.

The Bulldogs trailed 19-14 after a quarter and 45-27 at the half. The Lions were 9-for-17 from the field in the second quarter and 3-of-7 from 3-point range, while UMD was 10-for-28 in the first half with eight turnovers.

Minnesota Duluth's Madelyn Granica attempts a reverse layup in the first half of the NCAA Central Region championship game against Missouri Southern State on Monday, March 13, 2023 at Romano Gym in Duluth.
Terry Norton / UMD Athletics

The first spark of the comeback came from Hakamaki. The Cromwell-Wright product scored 10 points in the third quarter as UMD closed to within eight late, but lefty point guard Lacy Stokes scored five layups over the next five minutes of play. Layne Skiles and Amaya Johns also scored inside and it was 69-52 with 5:31 remaining.

It might have looked insurmountable, until it wasn’t. UMD increased its pressure on the ball to force a few turnovers. Gilbertson, Thiesen and Olson combined on five treys in the last five minutes, while the Lions finished 0-for-5 with four turnovers down the stretch. The Bulldogs switched Gilbertson on to Lacy Stokes defensively, which put a stop to the layups.

“Offensively, we got stagnant a little bit. I think we got to a point where we were just trying to keep the lead instead of continuing to be aggressive, and they did a good job turning us over with their press,” MSSU coach Ronnie Ressel said.

The Lions deployed 6-foot-3 center Madi Stokes and lots of defensive help to hold Olson to a controlled 21 points, 10 of them in the first quarter, and 13 rebounds. Leading the Bulldogs who stepped up their scoring in response were Gilbertson, who finished with 21 and Hakamaki, who had 16.

For the Lions, Lacy Stokes, the smallest player on the floor, had 22 points and 10 rebounds, while three other players scored in double figures.

“This feels really good, so I’m going to soak it in for as long as I can before we get back into the gym and get ready for some really, really tough teams down in St. Joseph,” Olson said.


Olson was named tournament MVP, with Gilbertson, Hakamaki, Lacy Stokes and Skiles rounding out the all-tournament team.

After re-seeding the eight remaining teams, the NCAA released pairings on Tuesday morning for next week's Elite Eight. UMD is seeded second and will meet East Region champion and seventh seed Assumption (27-4) in a national quarterfinal on Monday, March 21 at 2:30 p.m. The Elite Eight field includes seven teams that were No. 1 seeds in their region. Assumption, located in Worcester, Massachusetts, was ranked No. 21 in the country in the last national coaches' poll of the season. UMD was No. 6 in that poll.

Missouri So. St. 19-26-12-19—76

Minnesota Duluth 14-13-20-30—77

Missouri Southern State — Layne Skiles 12, Madi Stokes 13, Kryslyn Jones 18, Kaitlin Hunnicutt 1, Lacy Stokes 22, Amaya Johns 7, Mia Toppin 1, Mira Khan 2; FG: 27-61; FT: 16-20; 3-point goals: Skiles 2, Jones 2, L. Stokes 1, Johns 1.

Minnesota Duluth — Brooke Olson 21, Taytum Rhoades 9, Madelyn Granica 2, Maesyn Thiesen 6, Taya Hakamaki 16, Ella Gilbertson 21, Lexi Karge 2; FG: 29-67; FT: 10-11; 3-point goals: Olson 3, Thiesen 2, Hakamaki 1, Gilbertson 3.

This story was updated at 10:32 a.m. on March 14 to include UMD's Elite Eight seeding and opponent. It was originally posted at 11:34 p.m. on March 13.

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