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UMD women's basketball prepares for something completely different in semifinals

The Bulldogs will face Catawba on Wednesday at 6 p.m. in St. Joseph, Missouri.

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Minnesota Duluth's Taya Hakamaki (3) puts an arm around teammate Maesyn Thiesen in the postgame handshake line after the Bulldogs defeated Assumption 61-41 on Monday in an NCAA Elite Eight national quarterfinal at St. Joseph Civic Arena in St. Joseph, Missouri.
Arianne Boma / NCAA

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. โ€” No one gets to 31 wins in a college basketball season playing the same way every time, but Minnesota Duluth is likely to see as wide a variance between two games in a season as they will this week in the NCAA Elite Eight.

Monday's 61-41 submission of Assumption in the quarterfinals is very different from what the Bulldogs expect to see from semifinal opponent Catawba on Wednesday.

"It'll definitely be a different-paced game ... every team we play is going to have a different sort of game plan offensively and defensive, and we have to try our best to play our style of basketball," UMD coach Mandy Pearson said. "They're gonna get up and pressure us a little bit more, and they're gonna run a little bit more and we have to find a way to not let it speed us up but still make plays at a fast pace."

On Monday, the Bulldogs advanced comfortably from the national quarterfinals, despite early foul trouble holding national player of the year Brooke Olson to a season-low 17 minutes. Other players stepped up their scoring and the team defense was more than enough.

Whatever frustration Olson had with her game, her contributions or the officiating was long gone by the postgame media conference.

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"I'm really happy. Being in the Final Four, that is a dream come true in itself and playing in the Elite Eight was also a dream, so I think the most frustrating part was that, I've been dreaming about this my whole life, being in the Elite Eight, so it was really hard for me not to be on the floor. At the same time, Lexi Karge came out and played really good minutes for us as a freshman in the Elite Eight," she said.

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Minnesota Duluth's Ella Gilbertson, left, and Lexi Karge deny Assumption's Anna Davis on a layup attempt during the NCAA Elite Eight national quarterfinals on Monday at St. Joseph Civic Arena in St. Joseph, Missouri.
Arianne Boma / NCAA

Karge, a 6-foot-2 freshman from Mankato, put in 11 minutes, her highest total in four NCAA tournament games, and contributed four points and three boards. More importantly, she helped fortify the interior against Assumption's insistence upon driving to the rim. With no clear lane to the basket, the Greyhounds forced several layup attempts that didn't even hit the rim.

"I'm really lucky with this group because they're very smart basketball players and they really care about defense," Pearson said.

The regional tournament featured a similar mixed bag. On March 10, UMD opened its first regional in Romano Gym by grinding out a 66-50 victory over Southern Nazarene. A day later, the Bulldogs met Minnesota State Mankato for the third time this season and won for the third time this season, 80-74.

In that game, each team committed 14 turnovers, but the Bulldogs repeatedly broke through the pressure to find Olson for easy baskets, as she scored a career-high 43 points on 16-for-20 shooting.

Sixth seed Catawba (29-5) forced 23 turnovers and committed 17 of its own in an intense first quarterfinal on Monday, holding on for a 77-70 win over Cal State Dominguez Hills.

Catawba averages 11 steals and 16.1 turnovers per game. By comparison, UMD averages 7.5 steals and 12.9 turnovers.

"We spend a lot of time in our system being tired when we play," Catawba coach Terence McCutcheon said after his team's win. "I always talk to them about that. This is not a system where you're going to feel fresh when you're playing. We're pressing on defense and we're pushing the ball on the offensive side, and you have to get comfortable feeling tired, and I think that helped."

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Senior guard Lyrik Thorne was the player of the game for Catawba, scoring 21 of her 27 points in the second half and becoming the school's leading all-time scorer in the process.

The Catawba Indians (29-5), like UMD, had never played in the Elite Eight before Monday, and like UMD, needed a major rally to get there. Catawba, playing as the top seed on its home court in Salisbury, North Carolina in the Southeast Regional final, finished the game on a 24-4 run in the fourth quarter to defeat Georgia Southwestern 75-65.

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Minnesota Duluth's Madelyn Granica elevates over two Assumption defenders during the NCAA Elite Eight national quarterfinal on Monday at St. Joseph Civic Arena in St. Joseph, Missouri.
Arianne Boma / NCAA

The winner of Wednesday's semifinal will play No. 1 Ashland or defending national champion Glenville State in the national championship game on April 1 in Dallas.

UMD fifth-year seniors Olson and Maesyn Thiesen have repeatedly discussed their simple objective to "keep playing."

They had to find points and minutes in unusual places on Monday and are confident they can do so again on Wednesday.

"We're just having so much fun as a team and we trust each other, and every single person on the floor plays such a big role," Theisen said. "One through 16, we all contribute to our success. It's just been so fun and so exciting, it really is a dream come true."

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