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Long a hockey school, UMD sees both basketball teams surge

Head coaches Mandy Pearson and Justin Wieck started on different paths to establish championship level basketball at Minnesota Duluth.

But their programs came together this year to make NCAA tournament history for their school and league.

This is the first time in Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) history that one school has sent both its men's and women's basketball teams to the NCAA Elite Eight. UMD made conference history, and this is the first time either Bulldogs basketball team has advanced this far into the NCAA Division II tournament.

UMD's women (30-3) are the No. 2 seed and face No. 7 Assumption at 2:30 p.m. Monday in St. Joseph, Mo.UMD's men (26-9) are the No. 6 seed and face No. 3 Black Hills State (S.D.) at noon Tuesday in Evansville, Ind.

UMD isn't just a hockey school. Yes, the Bulldogs have won multiple men's and women's national championships and repeated trips to the Frozen Four. But there has been enough support to go around for hockey, hoops and other sports.

"It starts with the athletic department and the community," Pearson said. "We just have a bunch of people who are caring and excited. They love our players and want to get to know them. The fans come to games, but they're also invested in the players as people. It's just a really fun place to be."

Women's turnaround

After going 7-19 in her first season seven years ago, Pearson improved to win 23 games and reach her first NCAA tournament in 2019. This season was her fifth straight with an NCAA berth, but first past the second round.

The Bulldogs were motivated to go further after winning the NSIC tournament for the third straight year behind All-America senior forward Brooke Olson. The 6-2 Rice Lake, Wis., native was named Division II player of the year and is averaging 32 points and nearly 12 rebounds in three NCAA tourney games.

"She's always been really talented," Pearson said. "When teams are throwing everything at her, in those moments she's had some of the most incredible performances I've ever seen on the court. That's No. 1. And No. 2, we have a really unselfish group."

That unselfishness played out on the floor last Monday when the Bulldogs overcame a 20-point deficit to win 77-76 vs. Missouri Southern on a shot from junior Ella Gilbertson with 16 seconds left. She finished with 21 points, including 12 in the last 10 minutes.

Men's sudden surge

One day after that women's triumph, the UMD men avoided a close finish with a 62-52 victory over Southern Nazarene (Ind.) to also advance to the program's first Elite Eight.

"These guys bought into a vision a long time ago," Wieck told reporters after the game. "Winning a regional title was talked about but wasn't really on the radar for Duluth basketball. To go back-to-back nights with our women and men going to the Elite Eight is something special."

Wieck took over the men's program in 2018 and had the Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament last season. Like the women, the men got eliminated from the tournament in the first round.

This season, the Bulldogs men finished third in the NSIC regular-season standings, but they got hot at the right time by winning 10 of the last 11 games since Feb. 10. Their only loss during that stretch was to Minnesota State Moorhead in the NSIC tournament final.

Senior Drew Blair carried his team with 29 and 28 points in the last two NCAA tourney games. The Bulldogs also survived in the opening round when Blair was held to six points after suffering an injury. Minnesota natives Joshua Brown, Charlie Katona and Jack Middleton combined for 48 points that day.

Wieck set lofty goals for the program after landing talented recruiting classes. He hopes to continue to make UMD known for basketball as well.

"There were some good things in place," Wieck said. "All we had to do was make some good decisions in recruiting and get the basketball program going in the right direction."