Patrick Reusse
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MANKATO – The NCAA's Division II decides its basketball championships by sending eight teams to eight regions, with host schools chosen by seeding. Then, the eight winners proceed to a pre-chosen site for the "Elite Eight" title-deciding finals.

On Monday, Minnesota State Mankato's women's team was playing Southern Nazarene on its home court in Bethany, Okla., in the Central Region final.

"They had beaten us early in the season and their fans were very optimistic," Mavericks senior Joey Batt said. "I didn't play in that game. I broke my left hand in practice in October."

Batt showed off the scar from the repair on her left (shooting) hand. Her presence does make a difference. Which the Nazarene fans discovered early, as the Mavericks took a 24-5 lead after the first quarter.

The Mavs cruised to an 80-48 win, with Batt — former New Ulm High star — scoring 28 points. They were 2-3 without Batt, lost her first game back to rival Minnesota Duluth, and are 27-1 since then.

"We got up very early Tuesday for the three-plus hours bus ride for our flight from Dallas, then the time kept getting pushed with a maintenance issue," Batt said. "Long day, but our team had to get back to Mankato for this."

This was around 6 p.m. Tuesday and coach Emilee Thiesse's players were mingling at one end at Taylor Center, talking with other students, accepting congratulations.In an hour, the Mavericks men would be tipping off in the Central Region final vs. Northwest Missouri State. The arena would fill to a crowd of 4,519, the second-largest since it opened in the fall of 2000.

The fans/students would have a chance to salute the women's team when the players and coaches were introduced at halftime.

The salute was robust, but the overall mood was somewhat somber.

Northwest Missouri has become a perennial power in Division II, running coach Ben McCollum's extremely distinctive, ball-screening offense, and combining that with fierce defense.

The Bearcats will set screens all over to get the shot they want. They won four of five Division II titles from 2017 through 2022, went 38-0 in 2019 and were prohibitive favorites to win again in 2020 if the season had not been shut down on March 12 by COVID-19.

As the Mavs' women took their halftime bow, the Mavericks men were trailing 25-17 and were 100% flummoxed by Northwest's long, persistent possessions.

McCollum could be relocating after 15 years with the Bearcats. The Missouri State Bears are trying to hire him to run that D-I program in the Missouri Valley Conference.

That couldn't happen soon enough for Matt Margenthaler, the Minnesota State coach since 2001-02 and, close to miraculously, now taking his Mavericks to a second Elite Eight (they lost in the semis in 2011).

Margenthaler respects McCollum's excellence in coaching this offensive style. He just can't stand to watch it. Which we'll get to in a moment.

Meantime, the second half didn't get much better for a Mavs' offense that came in averaging 86 points.

It was their defense that became exceptional. MSU forced Northwest into numerous shots it didn't really want near the end of the shot clock, and then prevented second-chance points by outrebounding the visitors by 13 in the second half.

The shooting remained terrible, but it was worse for the Bearcats — 28% in the second half.

Finally, it was 42-41 for Northwest and Mankato was able to foul Wes Dreamer with 5.6 seconds left. He missed the front of the 1-on-1, Kyreese Willingham rebounded, threw an outlet pass to his brother Malik, who sped down the left side, saw Elijah Hazekamp breaking down the middle, passed, and Hazekamp got off a 15-footer a tick before the buzzer.

Only basket of the night for him. MSU 43, NMS 42. Bedlam ensues. And later, a question for Margenthaler:

Do they always play that way?

"All the time,'' he said. "We don't want to play that way. I would not want to coach that. It's not fun."

For one night, I must disagree. That was the most fun ugly college basketball game I've seen since Bill Musselman stopped coaching the Gophers in 1975.

And that mostly frustrating win earned the Mavericks (32-2) the No. 1 seed for the Elite Eight in Evansville, Ind., where they will meet Ferris State on Tuesday at 6 p.m.

As for Batt and those Mavericks (29-5), they are seeded No. 5 and will play No. 4 Georgia Southwestern on Monday at 8:30 p.m. in St. Joseph, Mo.

#MavFam they call it down here, and it's never been more so.