DULUTH – There was no way Brooke Olson was going to play basketball for Minnesota Duluth. Around the time she was shopping colleges — and getting recruited by regional Division I schools — the Division II Bulldogs were posting mediocre season records and nowhere near cracking into the top half of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference standings.
"I vividly recall telling my mom, 'I'm not going there, they aren't good,' " Olson said.
Her opinion changed after a summer basketball camp on Duluth's campus, combined with testimonials from Josie Buckley and Jenna Orr — older players from her hometown of Rice Lake, Wis., who played for coach Mandy Pearson at UMD. Olson family friend Karen Stromme, who coached Bulldogs' women's basketball for 21 years before segueing into an administrative position, delivered the pivotal plant.
"She told me, 'We want to get back to the tradition of excellence,' " Olson recalled. "'You could create your own legacy here.' That was something I loved to hear."
Olson and her teammates have done that — making an unprecedented run to Saturday's NCAA Division II women's basketball championship game. The No. 2 Bulldogs (32-3) face top-seeded Ashland University (36-0) at 2:30 p.m. at American Airlines Center in Dallas, marking the first time the UMD women's program has advanced first to the Elite Eight — and then beyond.
The Bulldogs cruised past Catawba College 70-59 in the semifinals while Ashland (Ohio), which has won two titles in the past 11 years, beat Glenville State 76-67 to advance.
The Division I and Division II women's finals will be held at the same venue, home of the Dallas Mavericks, this weekend as the NCAA marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX.
The Bulldogs haven't dropped a game since a dramatic 53-51 loss in late January against conference rival Augustana.
Pearson, in her eighth year at UMD, described this season's school record-setting team as one that has gotten a little bit better every year. The players believe in the process. They're energetic, they care about each other, everyone gets along, she said.
"Nobody is looking for individual accolades, all they try to do is just be successful on every possession," Pearson said. "They're goofy, they work really, really hard, and they just have fun."
In Olson, she's found a player that leaves her in awe sometimes, Pearson said.
"She comes back every single year better than she was the year before — which is a hard thing to do when you're a four-time All-American," Pearson said.
Olson, a senior who was recently named the Women's Basketball Coaches Association's Division II Player of the Year, is a 6-2 forward who is the key to the team's success. She averaged 23.1 points per game this past season but upped it to 29 points per game during the NCAA tournament. She has scored 145 points in the past five games — four short of the all-time tournament scoring record set in 2009 by Johannah Leedham of Franklin Pierce.
"She's a leader on and off the court," junior guard Taya Hakamaki said. "She pushes us to be our best."
Olson says she was born in a gym. Darla Olson, her mother, played and later coached at Michigan Tech, where Brooke spent much of her early childhood on the court. Her late father, Forrest Olson, played at Wisconsin-Oshkosh. She inherited her mother's work ethic and her father's natural skill, according to family lore.
"My mom takes credit," she said. "She says, 'Yup, it was a hybrid. You're welcome.' "
After a few years of playing on organized teams in elementary school, Olson faced a fork as an eighth grader. If she wanted to play collegiate basketball, she recalled her mother telling her, she was going to have to put in the work.
"I can do this," she remembered thinking.
She played five years of varsity under her mother at Rice Lake (Wis.) High School, serving as team captain for three, and collected superlatives within her team, conference and at the state level. It's also where the high school's boys coach Kevin Orr gave her a motivational concept that she has turned into a credo: Try to get just 1% better every day.
"I don't know if I'm getting 1 percent better every day, but I'm not taking things for granted — not taking games for granted — and I'm putting my best foot forward," she said. "There's always someone better than you, more skilled than you. You get 1 percent better per day, you'll eventually catch up."
NCAA Division II women's basketball championship game
Minnesota Duluth (32-3) vs. Ashland University (36-0)
Saturday: 2:30 p.m. at American Airlines Center in Dallas
Televised on CBS Sports Network