One goal remains for UMD women's basketball
Saturday's national championship game will air at 2:30 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.
The Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs are not the only Division II women’s basketball team that made a goal of being at Saturday’s national championship game at American Airlines Center in Dallas.
But they are one of two teams that can still reach out and do it.
“Every year I’ve been at Duluth, we say at the very beginning that our goal is to win a national championship,” UMD guard Taytum Rhoades said. “And then we kind of put that aside and we don’t necessarily talk about it every day because we know there’s things that come before that. Games in November are just as important as they are now.”
UMD players met the media Monday at Romano Gym, a venue very different from the NBA arena where the Bulldogs will face undefeated and No. 1-ranked Ashland on Saturday (2:30 p.m.)
“I think it was after Christmas when we realized we are a championship-caliber team,” she said. “This is a one-of-a-kind-type team. We are bonding off the court, on the court, and it really shows. Our chemistry is amazing. Once we started reeling in all those wins, going through adversity and what-not, it really showed that we could get to this point in the season.”
UMD (32-3), which was seeded second in the Elite Eight and ranked No. 6 in the last national coaches’ poll, hasn’t lost since late January. The last two of those 14 consecutive wins came at the NCAA Elite Eight in St. Joseph, Missouri, as the Bulldogs played confident, successful basketball to eliminate Assumption 61-41 in the quarterfinals and Catawba 70-59 in the semifinals in two very different games.
“We were up, we were down, we were in close games, we had a lot of pressure on us; there were times when we didn’t have as much pressure. I think we just learned how to deal with all different types of play,” Rhoades said.
Ashland (36-0) hasn’t lost at all this season, taking over the No. 1 spot in the polls from Grand Valley State at the beginning of January, and then slipping past the Lakers in the Midwest Regional final. The Eagles have faced some opposition, beating Texas-Tyler and defending national champions Glenville State by nine points apiece in each of the first two Elite Eight rounds, but they will be the favorites as they go for a third national championship in 11 years.
“We are the underdog, and I think in a lot of ways that gives us a little bit of motivation going into it,” UMD fifth-year senior Maesyn Thiesen said. “They’re a very good team, so we’re going to have to bring our best, but I’m just excited to get a shot at them.”
Ashland head coach Kari Pickens was the star player on the 2013 champions and an assistant coach on the 2018 champions.
“I think championships are just a byproduct of things done the right way, and this team has done things the right way all year, and I would just be really happy for my girls because of the selflessness that they had,” Pickens said after the national semifinal when asked to discuss the unprecedented potential trifecta.
Ashland has four players averaging scoring in double figures led by senior forward Annie Roshak’s 14.4. Zoe Miller (11.9 ppg) and Hayley Smith (11.3 ppg) also stand 6 feet or taller, giving UMD’s national player of the year Brooke Olson lots of competition in the frontcourt.
Roshak had 17 points and 10 rebounds in the national semifinal, while Smith had 15 points and 16 boards.
“This will be the most efficient team that we’ve played this year,” UMD coach Mandy Pearson said. “We have to be really active on defense and we really have to anticipate some things so we can get places quicker than we have this year.”
Thiesen laid down an unflappable performance in the semifinals against Catawba, directing the UMD offense for a full 40 minutes. Most players from Sauk Center, Minnesota don’t make it to NBA courts, but Thiesen said UMD can’t get starstruck now.
“We can’t let our emotions get too high because we don’t want to be playing out of ourselves, we want to stick to what we’ve done all year,” she said. “I think just staying consistent with the focus that we’ve had the entire season is gonna be what is going to get us to play our best basketball on that day.”
Regardless of the result, Saturday is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“I think we just learned that the more we have fun with it, the more things go our way,” Thiesen said.