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Pressure defense carries Minnesota State Mankato women to D-II basketball crown

ST. JOSEPH, MO. – The Minnesota State Mankato women's basketball team had won all season behind its defense. Friday, the Mavericks turned in a virtuoso performance that earned them a national championship.

The Mavericks' dynamic full-court press forced 30 turnovers, with 21 coming from steals, in an 89-73 victory over Texas Woman's at the St. Joseph Civic Center, earning the program its second national title to go with the one it won in 2009.

It was the 14th time this season Minnesota State Mankato (32-5) had forced at least 30 turnovers this season, and it came one game after forcing 27 in Wednesday's semifinals. The Mavericks, in their 13th season coached by Emilee Thiesse, finished the season ranked first in D-II turnover margin (plus-13.1) and second in turnovers forced per game (28.1) and steals (17.1).

"Making sure that we focused more on ourselves, because it's our defense, it's our pace, it's our everything that sets the tone of the game, not what the seeding is," said guard Joey Batt, a senior All-America from New Ulm who led the way with seven steals to go along with 10 points and six assists.

That seeding had Minnesota State a No. 7 seed in the Central Region tournament — the mathematical equivalent of a No. 13 or 14 seed in the Division I tournament. But the Mavericks won three games in Bethany, Okla. by double digits, then won two tight ones in St. Joseph before dominating Texas Women's (34-5) to avenge one of their early-season losses. They opened the season 2-4 before winning 30 of their final 31 games.

"Those three regional games were the best ever," Batt said. "We started a good hot streak there."

The Mavericks were able to win their final two games despite a banged-up lineup as well, as starters Destinee Bursch and Emily Russo were injured in Monday's quarterfinal. Bursch, who averages 15.5 points per game, played limited minutes in the final two games with a brace on her right knee, and Russo, wearing a mask to protect her face, played only three minutes in the semifinal before sitting out Friday.

"Just kind of showing our resiliency that we had throughout the entire season, it kind of showed in this one game," guard Natalie Bremer said.

Bremer was named the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player after the sophomore from Lake City scored 27 points Friday. In three games in the Elite Eight, she scored 70 points with 17 rebounds and 11 steals.

"She's just one of the best athletes I've ever seen, and Mankato basketball is in really good hands with her next year," senior Emily Herzberg said of Bremer.

The Mavericks were preparing to spend their Saturday watching the men's team duplicate their feat. Minnesota State played Nova Southeastern in Evansville, Ind.

"So much fun. What great national buzz going around for Minnesota State University," Thiesse said. "Just such great support between the two programs, great connections between the players, the staffs. It's just been so much fun to see the type of energy that their team plays with that mimics our team's so much. There's just so much fun around Maverick basketball right now."