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Mankato welcomes historic national championship basketball teams home

Minnesota State Mankato students and the community celebrated not one but two NCAA Division II national basketball titles as both the men's and women's teams returned to campus Monday.

The dual titles have put Mankato on the map nationally for its basketball prowess, said Anders Freborg, a 21-year-old MSU Mankato student who plays saxophone in the teams' pep band.

"We're a basketball school now," he said, wearing the band's signature "Maverick Machine" T-shirt.

Freborg was one of the nearly 1,000 people celebrating at the Taylor Center arena on campus. Cheers echoed around the venue when the men's and women's teams walked out simultaneously from two tunnels. Each had a player carrying a NCAA championship trophy as they walked to center court.

Mankato became the first Division II program in 40 years to win both the women's and men's championships in the same season.

Before the teams arrived, the crowd was treated to a series of highlight videos for the two teams' playoff runs. On Friday, the women beat Texas Woman's 89-73 in St. Joseph, Mo., before the men's team beat Nova Southeastern 88-85 one day later in Evansville, Ind., on a last-second three-pointer by Kyreese Willingham.

The event was emotional for Willingham's brother, fifth-year player Malik Willingham, who cried as he addressed the crowd.

"It took time to get here, but this is a brotherhood," Willingham said. "This is what we needed. It took me five years, but we're national champs, baby!"

Mankato student Andrew Grimm, another saxophonist in the pep band, said it felt like a home game during the men's championship since the opponents didn't have a band. He called it a once-in-a-lifetime experience getting to attend both championships in the same weekend.

"We were just all saying, 'Pinch us, we're dreaming,'" said Grimm, 18.

Grimm and Freborg said they think the victories are also a testament to the the family-like culture that exists between fans and the players. That closeness, coined the "Mav Fam," was the focus of the speech by Sierra Roiger, Mankato's student government president.

"Whether you're a star athlete, a diehard fan, or someone who's never set foot on the court, there's a place for you in Maverick Nation," Roiger said.

Women's basketball coach Emilee Thiesse gave a shoutout to the women's team that won the 2009 national championship, saying she's "honored that we got to carry on that torch."

Men's coach Matt Margenthaler praised his team's selflessness, highlighting one moment during the playoffs when a player encouraged benching himself so another player who was resting could come in to secure the victory.

He said he was glad to bring a men's championship to the arena, a goal he said he discussed with philanthropist and businessman Glen Taylor 23 years ago when the stadium was built using his $10 million donation.

"I told you playing cards that night we were going to get it done," Margenthaler said to Taylor, whom the stadium is named for.

Between speeches, Mankato Mayor Najwa Massad issued a proclamation to congratulate the two teams. Massad said she was cheering loudly from home over the weekend during both games.

"I think they could probably hear me in Indiana and Missouri," Massad joked as she entered the arena.