Bulldogs' title shot takes place as NCAA celebrates Title IX legacy
The championship games in Divisions II and III were reserved to take place at the same site and same weekend as the Division I championship in Dallas.
DULUTH — Saturday’s Division II women’s basketball national championship game at American Airlines Center in Dallas is not just the culmination of a five-and-a-half month season but the continuation of 50 years of legacy in women’s athletics.
Typically the Elite Eight is three rounds at one site, but this year the NCAA reserved the title games in Divisions II and III to April 1 so they could be held in the same location and weekend as the Division I title game. So, all levels of the college game will salute the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which was implemented in the summer before the 1972-73 school year.
“I think it’s amazing. I feel really lucky … when I’m looking over here and I see Karen Stromme, there’s so many amazing women that came before us that worked their tails off and made sacrifices and did the dirty work so we could have moments like this,” UMD coach Mandy Pearson said after the Bulldogs knocked off Catawba in the national semifinals on March 22 to earn a spot in Saturday’s championship game.
Stromme, a UMD athletic pioneer, former women’s basketball coach and senior woman administrator, was not only present to see the program she piloted to 440 victories from 1984-2005 reach its highest heights in school history, Pearson could look her in the eye when giving her praise, as Stromme was in the interview room working with the NCAA as a coaches’ liaison.
Stromme was a seventh-grader in Duluth when Title IX went into effect on June 23, 1972. It reads: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
At a panel discussion event hosted by UMD in May 2022, Stromme and several other women athletes of different generations marked that legacy.
“I was 6 feet tall in seventh grade and all I wanted to do was be like everyone else. I couldn’t be,” said Stromme then. “When it was announced that we were going to have the first-ever girls basketball team at Woodland Junior High School, I was beyond excited. I can honestly tell you from that moment forward, it changed my life about who I was and what I could do.”
Not all of that legacy was perfect. The university was under government investigation in the late 1990s for being out of compliance and was found liable in 2018 for sex discrimination and Title IX retaliation against former women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller when her contract was not renewed after the 2014-15 season. The suit included other athletic department personnel, including former women’s basketball coach Annette Wiles, but those claims were dismissed.
Pearson succeeded Wiles, where she has won more than 150 games over eight seasons on the UMD bench.
As a young athlete, Pearson starred at Eden Valley-Watkins south of St. Cloud, winning six varsity letters and reaching a Class A state championship game before starting every game she appeared in over four seasons at Concordia-Moorhead.
She admitted that, being of a later generation, she never felt “pushed aside,” but that the occasion of the 50th anniversary is deeply meaningful.
“To get to the national tournament, incredible, but to do it this year makes it really, really incredible,” she said.
Now the ball is in the hands of a new generation on one of the biggest stages in American women’s sports.
“I think you just want to do it for the people before you and just show how far we’ve come. Women’s basketball has come so far, and to have the recognition it deserves I think is really special. It’s important to all of us and we want to do our best,” UMD junior Ella Gilbertson said.
‘Enjoy the nerves’
Minnesota Duluth played before 2,787 on the road at Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D. on Feb. 4. Without knowing how many tickets will be sold Saturday, it’s likely that the Dallas Mavericks’ home arena will be a bigger stage regardless of the size of the audience.
“At times there are going to be nerves, and I don’t know on that stage what it’s going to feel like,” Pearson said. “I think it’s going to be an incredible experience, but we will prepare exactly the same way. I’m really lucky because I have a mature group and I have a group that is really determined to have success on both ends of the floor.”
Ashland coach Kari Pickens said, historical occasion aside, she was less than thrilled to have an opponent with more than a week to prepare for her Eagles, but that the occasion will give her team time to work through some late-season injuries before noting, “It is so important for us to continue to recognize Title IX.”
Pearson compared the gap between the March 22 national semifinals and Saturday to the end of the NSIC tournament (which was on Feb. 28 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota) and the beginning of the NCAA Central Regional (March 10 in Duluth).
“I think it’s something that we’re very familiar with. That’s always been a thing for me, as we’ve approached that every year, trying to figure out the balance of how much do you push them, how much time do you spend in the gym, how much time do you need to rest,” she said.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King famously said “pressure is a privilege,” so it sounds like “nerves” are a good problem to have.
“Enjoy the nerves. Nerves are your body’s way of telling you that something great is going to happen sometimes,” Pearson said.