UMD women's basketball faces next challenge at Elite Eight

The Bulldogs will play Assumption (Mass.) on Monday at 2:30 p.m. in St. Joseph, Missouri in a national quarterfinal.

Minnesota Duluth women's basketball players await the awards ceremony after the NCAA Central Region championship game vs. Missouri Southern State on Monday, March 13, 2023 at Romano Gym in Duluth.
Terry Norton / UMD Athletics

DULUTH — A 20-point comeback to win a regional championship in front of a raucous home crowd might be the moment of a lifetime, but in the NCAA tournament, it’s merely a means to an end.

A national championship trophy is still out there for the Minnesota Duluth women’s basketball team and there are still three steps necessary to win it. The next one is Monday afternoon in a national Elite Eight quarterfinal.

“Our grittiness that we had on Monday was something that I don’t think we’ve seen from us,” Brooke Olson said of UMD’s comeback from 20 points down in the second half and 17 behind with less than six minutes to play to win the first women’s basketball regional title in school history.

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.

Olson was named Women's Basketball Coaches Association national player of the year for 2023, according to a release on Friday.

The first player of the year in UMD history, she averaged 23 points and 7.4 rebounds per game this season and 32 points and 11.7 per rebounds per game in the regional tournament, in which she was named most outstanding player.


The team’s other fifth-year senior, guard Maesyn Thiesen, said “We learned a lot, but a lot of things we sort of already knew about ourselves.”

“I think we knew this all along, but I think we just learned that we aren’t going to give up no matter what the situation is, no matter how much we’re down by, how much we’re up by, we’re going to just keep pushing and keep fighting and playing our game.”

Once the eight regional champions were determined, the field was re-seeded and UMD ranked No. 2. The 30-3 Bulldogs will face Assumption University of Worcester, Massachusetts at 2:30 p.m. at the St. Joseph Civic Arena in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Coach Mandy Pearson had yet to give the Bulldogs a scouting report on the Greyhounds when the team met for practice on a snowy Thursday afternoon at Romano Gym.

“It’s so fun to still be playing basketball this late in the year,” she said in response to the first question from the assembled media.

Minnesota Duluth's Brooke Olson presses her team's sticker on the ceremonial bracket after the Bulldogs won the NCAA Central Region championship on Monday at Romano Gym in Duluth.
Terry Norton / UMD Athletics

UMD, which at 571 miles mostly down Interstate 35 is 29 miles too close to St. Joseph to get a chartered plane flight under NCAA rules, was scheduled to leave Duluth via bus on Friday. It’s not the end of the world. UMD began its season in Kansas City (a short drive to the south of St. Joseph) in November with two games and has played road games in Missouri in each of the last four seasons that weren’t affected by COVID-19.

From the regional tournament, UMD learned just how much it has going for it. Though Olson, a national player of the year candidate, laid down dominant performances in UMD’s first two regional tournament victories, finals opponent Missouri Southern State had enough brawn inside to at least try and slow Olson down, “holding” her to 21 points on 8-of-18 shooting and 13 rebounds.

Monday’s heroines were players like Taya Hakamaki, who scored 10 points as the Bulldogs jolted to life in the third quarter, or Ella Gilbertson, who made the game-winning 3-pointer, or players like Maesyn Theisen and Taytum Rhoades, who made just enough plays to make the miraculous possible.


“We’re really tough. We made a lot of mistakes and things were not going super well or in our favor and we had every single person on the floor step up in different moments and make plays,” Pearson said.

In the noisy Romano environment, there was only so much Pearson said she could do from her coaches’ box and it was the players who took leadership and ownership.

“The trust is amazing. The knowledge of knowing what needs to be done when it needs to be done is probably the best I’ve ever seen out of a team,” she said.

The UMD women were not the only team still standing in Romano Gym. Before their practice, the men’s team continued preparation for its own Elite Eight trip. At the Division II level, where so many conference schedules are men’s/women’s doubleheaders, the programs become something of fraternal twins.

The schedule for the two tournaments mostly dovetails. The first two rounds of the women’s tournament are Monday and Wednesday, while the first two rounds of the men’s Elite Eight in Evansville, Indiana are Tuesday and Thursday. Though the men’s national championship game is in Indiana next Saturday, the women’s title game, if UMD reaches it, has been reserved by the NCAA to take place Saturday, April 1 in Dallas as part of the Division I women’s Final Four weekend.

“We each had our ups and downs over the seasons and we’ve kind of used it to play our best basketball to this point. Going into that with them is exciting, a lot of us are very good friends. I think it’s just so fun to have so many people in Duluth who know what we’re going through and know we have them behind our back and we’re behind their back,” Thiesen said.

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

Scouting the Greyhounds

Under the NCAA’s highly regionalized Division II model, the Greyhounds and Bulldogs do not have any common opponents, but here’s five things to know:


  1. Assumption leads the nation in scoring defense (50.8 points per game) and field-goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 32.9% from the field.
  2. The Greyhounds, like the Bulldogs, are first-timers in the Elite Eight and set a program record of 27 wins (and five losses). They were co-champions of the Northeast-10 Conference and, like seven of the eight regional champions, won their Elite Eight berth on their home court, defeating Jefferson 62-57 in the regional championship game.
  3. Assumption’s leading scorer is junior guard Molly Stokes, who averages 12.0 points per game, but it seems like the Greyhounds have been getting it done by committee offensively. Assumption’s other four starters all average between 8.9 and 9.6 points, while the East Regional Most Outstanding Player, freshman guard Teagan Curran, wasn’t one of them. 
  4. This week’s tournament features the No. 1, 3, 4, 6 (UMD), 8, 20 and 21 (Assumption) teams in the last Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Division II poll. That didn’t have much to do with the seeding, though, as No. 3 (Tampa) and No. 4 (defending national champion Glenville State) were drawn against each other in the 4/5 game on Monday. UMD wouldn’t see either of them (or No. 1 Ashland) until the national championship. The winner of the Bulldogs-Greyhounds game will face third-seeded Cal State Dominguez Hills (No. 8 in the poll) or sixth-seeded Catawba (No. 20) in a national semifinal on Wednesday night.
  5. Assumption’s most famous alumnus? LSU and former Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly.

This story was updated at 10:28 a.m. on March 17 with news of Brooke Olson's national player of the year award. It was originally posted at 1:18 a.m.

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