EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The Minnesota Duluth men’s basketball team huddled on the floor after the handshake lines had passed. Head coach Justin Wieck spoke to his Bulldogs, who had just dropped their Elite Eight game 86-68 to Black Hills State.
The somber faces and lowered heads of the UMD players and staff were greeted by a standing ovation of the traveling contingent at Ford Center. The Bulldogs’ historic season — which featured their first appearance in the Elite Eight and first three NCAA Tournament wins in program history — was over just six years removed from a dismal 4-25 finish.
Those final moments on the floor were spent together, huddled and reminiscing on what was and what could be. Wieck wanted his players to soak in the moment, look around to see what they accomplished and thank those who came along.
“Sometimes it’s hard to take a step back when you’re in the moment to just see what we’ve done,” Wieck said. “I know it hurts in the moment to lose. We’ve got some great competitors in that locker room. … It’s hard to do.”
The Bulldogs have grown over the past few seasons. UMD made its first NCAA tournament in 20 years last year and has now made strides to the Elite Eight. The Bulldogs’ foe from South Dakota made the Final Four last season — “they were as good as advertised,” Wieck said — and showed that experience.
Wieck and his players recognized that. UMD had 14 turnovers to Black Hills’ nine, 19 personal fouls to the Yellowjackets’ eight. Black Hills State coach Ryan Thompson said one of his team’s goals was to limit UMD guard Drew Blair, who ended with 16 points on 6-21 shooting from the floor.
“It looked like they’d been here before,” Wieck said. “They were rocking and rolling from the tip.”
“I do think it helped us being here last year,” Thompson said. “Going through this, there’s a lot of things that, outside of playing the game, go into this event and this tournament that make it special.”
But the end isn’t where the focus was postgame. Wieck and his players reflected on the time leading to that moment in the postgame huddle: Last season’s NCAA appearance, the first wins of the postseason, coming back from deficits in conference and regional tournament games. The starting five of Blair, Joshua Brown, Jack Middleton, Charlie Katona and Austin Andrews has been together for three years, with Wieck hoping for a fourth next season.
“I would say we had a great season. To make it here was special,” Katona said. “There was obviously ups and downs. We didn’t have the perfect season; we didn’t win every single game, but we’re here. I think we proved that we’re gonna be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.”
UMD started strong and rode an 8-0 run into the first media timeout to hold a 12-10 lead. Black Hills State took over after that, never letting go of the lead after taking it. The Yellowjackets had 14-0, 16-2 and 7-0 runs that put the game out of the Bulldogs’ reach. Eighteen of BHSU guard Matthew Ragsdale’s game-high 25 points came in the first half.
UMD pushed throughout the second half but couldn’t get the stops it needed. The deficit was never lower than 10 points after halftime.
“I told these guys at halftime, ‘I know we’re gonna fight,’” Wieck said. “We dug a little bit too deep of a hole there in the first half.”
Wieck and his players’ sights, despite the season-ending loss and still-fresh wounds, were more focused on the future than the immediate past. The Bulldogs have two graduating seniors but should return most of their key contributors. The offseason brings recruiting and a summer trip to Spain for the team — “we’ve a lot of opportunities to keep getting better,” Wieck said.
UMD now knows what it takes to get to this level. The key is using that to return in the future. That future began with one final team huddle after the final game of the season.
“I’m so happy to do it with these guys. These guys are fantastic human beings, let alone basketball players,” Wieck said. “It’s a really fun group. These are the guys I had a chance to recruit and really build this thing.
“It’s a special group, they’ve made history. … There’s a couple more goals out there still for them, but I never wanted them to lose sight of the bigger picture of just how special their run has been.”