MILLER: Mallory Bernhard making UND's gutsy hire look good
UND hired Bernhard with the program coming off a two-win season. The Fighting Hawks earned win No. 15 on Thursday night.
GRAND FORKS — When UND handed Mallory Bernhard the interim head coach label prior to the 2020-21 season, her path to full-time head coach status seemed quite reasonable.
Bernhard was a former UND standout and well-respected in the profession.
Then UND experienced a 2020-21 covid-impacted season unlike any in its history — ultimately a 2-19 record and the fewest wins in a season in program history.
No doubt Bernhard was fighting an uphill battle with the pandemic and injuries. Still, though, the question was whether UND would have the guts to hire the interim coach of the team that won only two games.
UND and athletic director Bill Chaves made that bold decision in March of 2021. Now, less than a year later, Bernhard is making that move look brilliant.
The Fighting Hawks picked up win No. 15 on Thursday night in a 74-61 victory over St. Thomas at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.
Picked to finish ninth in the Summit League in preseason polls, UND is battling for the No. 3 spot in the conference.
The win against St. Thomas wasn't sparkling, but that's a sign of growth, too. UND didn't have its best against the Tommies, but it didn't feel in real danger of losing, either.
Melissa Leet, having her best season in Grand Forks, battled foul trouble, while star Kacie Borowicz had a so-so shooting night (6-for-18).
Yet there was the always-tough Claire Orth to pick up the slack with 23 points, while junior college transfer Deja Davis — once playing little minutes — scoring 13 points and finishing the game a team-best plus-22 when she was on the court.
This season has put UND ahead of the curve on its rebuilding project, which was far from a slam dunk.
UND lost Jaclyn Jarnot and Megan Zander to the transfer portal in the offseason. Julia Fleecs and Mikayla Reinke graduated and moved on with their college and professional careers.
That's four starters gone from a two-win team.
The Fighting Hawks have already made waves in recruiting, landing two ESPN four-star recruits with major offers in Detroit's Rakiyah Beal and Milwaukee's Nakiyah Hurst. Add in Mikayla Aumer of Cambridge-Isanti in Minnesota and Amanda Roach of Brighton, Mich., and the Hawks have four potential impact players arriving next season.
Rebuilds usually aren't easy. You can ask the UND men's basketball program about that.
But the Hawks are ahead of the curve, potentially losing Leet and role player Jolene Daninger off this year's team.
Proving a lot of people wrong isn't lost on this UND team, either.
"Obviously being ranked ninth preseason and now contending for the third-place spot has been huge," Orth said. "Last year, it was hard for the Grand Forks community to be amped but it's been awesome to bring back that UND women's basketball that hasn't been here for a little bit."
Bernhard didn't realize the win against the Tommies guaranteed UND a winning season this year.
"It's just a mindset and confidence thing," Bernhard said. "Last year without the non-conference schedule, you don't get that winning feeling. This is a tough league. This year, we're pulling out the close games. We're a much more confident team. It helps to have Kacie, and we didn't have her last year. No doubt there's that, but as a team, we're confident, and we're having players step up and making big-time plays."