WOMEN'S BASKETBALL: UND won’t change for tourney opener
UND powered its way to the Big Sky Conference regular-season and postseason titles this season behind a physical style of play that dominated the 11-team league.
On Sunday, UND’s power will be put the ultimate test as North Dakota goes up against one of the top teams in the Southeastern Conference — Texas A&M, another big, powerful team that plays in arguably the toughest league in women’s college basketball.
How UND’s physical style of play will stack up in the first-round NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament game remains to be seen.
But one thing is certain.
UND won’t change its style of play.
“I don’t teach our players to back down from anyone,” said UND coach Travis Brewster. “That’s the way it’s been all year.”
UND will face not only a physical team, but one that can get up and down the court quickly.
The Aggies finished 13-3 in the Southeastern Conference this season. A&M averaged 70.9 points and outrebounded opponents by five boards per game.
Courtney Walker leads A&M in scoring, averaging 15.2 points per game, followed by Courtney Williams (13.7) and Karla Gilbert (11.3).
“They’re very up-tempo,” said Brewster. “It’ll be a tough game. The 12th Man is going to be there, obviously.”
But playing a team from a power conference isn’t something new to UND this season.
UND has played Iowa, Iowa State and Minnesota this season. The only difference will be this game comes on the sport’s biggest stage.
“We have to think that there is no pressure on us,” said UND senior Madi Buck, the Big Sky Conference MVP. “We’re the underdog. We just have to go out, play our game and look for the upset.
“We’ve played high-caliber teams from big conferences before. That helped us prepare for this game, too. But the Big Sky is good competition, too, and that got us ready as well.”
Buck said there are similarities between the teams.
“Their outside shooting is not a huge part of their game,” she said, referring to A&M’s 76 three-pointers this season in 32 games. “We don’t rely on the 3-pointer, either. We like to get high-percentage shots; dribble dive, kick to the open person and shoot easy bunnies.
“I’m thrilled no matter who we’re playing. It’ll be a good matchup for us and it’ll be a fun atmosphere.”
UND opened the season at Iowa State, losing 84-55.
But improvement began shortly after that loss and continued throughout the Big Sky season.
“We’ve cut down on our miscues,” said Brewster. “We’re a better executing team in the half court. And we got over our stigma against the zone. For a while there, every time we saw the zone we were kind of folded up the tent and were ready to go home.
“And we’re shooting the basketball better, too (43 percent).”
But UND’s defense may be the team’s strength.
“We’re just starting to understand the system,” said Brewster. “We went to that defense in August. We have to understand that defense has to create our offense.”
And UND players are beginning to understand the program has made a remarkable turnaround from last year, UND’s first as an NCAA-tournament eligible team.
UND was picked eighth and ninth in preseason Big Sky polls.
“It says a lot about our character and what coach Brewster has taught us other than basketball,” said UND junior Emily Evers of the program’s ascent to the NCAA tournament. “He’s always taught us to be strong people and strong willed. We used those polls as motivation and to prove people wrong.
“And we did that.”