Head coaches Mandy Pearson and Justin Wieck embarked on separate paths to establish championship-level basketball in 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 the history of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) that a school has sent both its men’s and women’s basketball teams to the NCAA Elite Eight. UMD made conference history, and this marks 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 the No. 7 Assumption Monday at 2:30 p.m. in St. Joseph, Mo.
- The UMD men (26-9) are No. 6 and meet No. 3 Black Hills State (SD) in Evansville, Indiana Tuesday afternoon.
UMD is not just a hockey school. Yes, the Bulldogs have won multiple national championships for both men and women and repeated trips to the Frozen Four. But there was enough support for hockey, basketball and other sports.
“It starts with the athletic department and the community,” Pearson said. “We only have a few people who care and are excited. They love our players and want to get to know them. The fans come to the games, but they are also invested in the players as people. It’s just a really fun place to be.”
Turnaround of women
After a 7-19 in her debut season seven years ago, Pearson improved, winning 23 games and reaching her first NCAA tournament in 2019. This season was her fifth straight NCAA berth, but only after the second round.
The Bulldogs were motivated to go further after winning the NSIC tournament for the third straight year behind All-America senior Brooke Olson. The 6-2 Rice Lake, Wisconsin native was named Division II Player of the Year, averaging 32 points and nearly 12 rebounds in three NCAA tournament games.
“She’s always been very talented,” Pearson said. “When teams throw everything at her, in those moments, she put in some of the most incredible performances I’ve ever seen on the pitch. That’s number 1. And number 2, we have a really selfless group.”
That altruism played out on the floor last Monday as the Bulldogs came from a 20-point deficit to win 77-76 over Missouri Southern with a shot from junior Ella Gilbertson 16 seconds from time. She finished with 21 points, 12 of them in the last 10 minutes.
The sudden increase in men
A day after that women’s triumph, the UMD men avoided a close finish with a 62-52 win over Southern Nazarene (Ind.) to also advance into the program’s first Elite Eight.
“These guys embarked on a vision a long time ago,” Wieck told reporters after the game. “There was talk of winning a regional title but wasn’t really on the radar for Duluth basketball. There is something special about spending back-to-back nights with our women and men who go to the Elite Eight.”
Wieck took over the men’s program in 2018 and had the Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament last season. Like the women, the men were eliminated from the tournament in the first round.
This season, the Bulldogs men finished third in the NSIC regular-season rankings, but they’ve been heating up at just the right time by winning 10 of their last 11 games since February 10. Their only loss during that stretch was against Minnesota State Moorhead in the finals of the NSIC tournament.
Senior Drew Blair carried his team into their last two NCAA tournament games with 29 and 28 points. The Bulldogs also survived in the opening round when Blair was pinned on six points from injury. Minnesota natives Joshua Brown, Charlie Katona and Jack Middleton combined for 48 points on the day.
Wieck set lofty goals for the program after receiving talented recruitment courses. He hopes to bring UMD to basketball as well.
“There were some good things,” Wieck said. “All we had to do was make some good recruiting decisions and steer the basketball program in the right direction.”