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TOM MILLER: UND could make this a habit

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TOM MILLER: UND could make this a habit
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Travis Brewster, Madi Buck and Mia Loyd stepped into the media room for an NCAA tournament press conferenceSaturday afternoon inside Reed Arena on the campus of Texas A&M.

The press conference official introduced the coach, his players and the team as “the Lady Griz.”

Oops.

Brewster, whose team plays Texas A&M at 7 tonight on ESPN2 in the opening round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, leaned forward to the microphone and corrected. “We’re North Dakota. No nickname.”

Yes, North Dakota is an unknown on this stage, making its first trip to the Big Dance.

The future, though? There’s no reason UND can’t be an NCAA tournament regular.

It will take a shift in power in the Big Sky. Montana — the real Lady Griz — has owned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Griz will likely be a constant challenger, as will next year’s Big Sky newcomer Idaho, which also made the NCAA tournament out of the Western Athletic Conference this season and drew a No. 14 seed.

But the Big Sky power structure is changing; that’s for sure.

UND, led by veteran coach Gene Roebuck, dominated NCAA Division II for a period in the late 1990s and carried some of that success into the early 2000s.

North Dakota continued to produce quality teams during the Division I transition, winning regular season titles and a conference championship in the Great West Conference — a shaky scheduling-alliance league without an NCAA automatic bid.

In just Year 2 of the much sturdier Big Sky — now led by Brewster, Roebuck’s protégé — UND is dancing.

And UND is doing it without being a senior-dominated team or injury free: two usual labels of winners.

UND had the excuses not to make this tournament as Big Sky preseason polls picked the team eighth and ninth.

First, UND starts a true freshman and a Division I newcomer in the backcourt — a scary development for a coach at any level.

The team also lost its second leading scorer in Game 5 when senior Megan Lauck suffered a season-ending injury. There weren’t many proven scorers remaining at the time of the injury.

Two expected role players, senior post Katie Houdek and sophomore wing Josie Dillon,  have also been out with injuries most of the year and will not play against the Aggies.

But the team, behind the leadership of Big Sky player of the year Buck and senior post Allyssa Wall, persevered into the NCAA tournament, speaking to the depth and talent of the program.

The university has committed resources and strong facilities to making UND women’s basketball work at the Division I level. The fan base, excluding the student body, has provided strong support at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.

The pieces are in place for a strong run over an extended time.

Although it loses Buck and Wall off this team, UND returns a strong group — adding some notable recruits — that will likely be preseason favorites in the Big Sky next season.

It’s also a team winning with local talent — a major concern when the program made the move to Division I athletics. That’s a characteristic that lends to maintaining UND’s position at the top of the conference. UND doesn’t need to widely expand its recruiting footprint.

UND possess North Dakota talent from Grand Forks, Bismarck, Fargo and Grafton. Five more come from Minnesota and one from South Dakota.

If UND can continue to win local and regional recruiting battles, NCAA tournament bids could become the norm.

UND has a Division II pedigree, making waves as a Division I newcomer and providing glimpses of long-term success. So even if it isn’t a household name now or ever to the common Texan, the UND women’s basketball team could be on the Division I tournament map for some time.

Tom Miller
Miller has been with the Grand Forks Herald sports department for the past 10 years. He's also a Grand Forks native and UND graduate. 
(701) 780-1121
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