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Time to dance

March 16, 2009


Brittany McCoy hugs Pam Borton.

Brittany McCoy hugs coach Pam Borton after Monday's announcement that the Gophers were chosen to play in the NCAA tournament. The No. 10-seeded Gophers will open against No. 7 Notre Dame Sunday in South Bend, Indiana.                                                                
Photo courtesy Sylvia Hesse

The madness of March is in full swing for Gopher sports teams

By Rick Moore

It's tournament time in Minnesota, and for fans of the Golden Gophers, there is more than usual to cheer about.

A weekend of excitement in sports was capped with the announcements on Sunday and Monday that both the men's and women's basketball teams have earned invitations to the NCAA tournament, a.k.a. the "Big Dance." The men's team was picked as the No. 10 seed in the East Regional, and will open the tournament against No. 7 seed Texas on Thursday in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Gopher women were also tabbed as a No. 10 seed, and will play their opener at No. 7 Notre Dame on Sunday. 

For the men, it will be their sixth NCAA tourney appearance, their first under second-year head coach Tubby Smith, and their first since 2005, when they fell in the first round to Iowa State 64-53.

"First, I want to thank the NCAA selection committee and say how excited we are to be in the tournament. It's one of the greatest sporting events in our culture and our country. I am excited for our players," Smith said following the announcement of the brackets. "To be going there in just two years, I am very happy with the direction of our program.... Being a No. 10 seed, we are just excited to be playing. Rick Barnes and the Texas Longhorns are from a very tough conference. He is an outstanding coach and they have outstanding players so we know we will have to be at our best to give them a good game."

The invitation punctuates a dramatic turnaround for the team under Smith. Two years ago the Gophers won only three conference games en route to a 9-22 season. This year, they raced to an undefeated record in 12 non-conference games (including an upset of Louisville—the No. 1 seed overall in the tournament—in December) and enter the tournament with a 22-10 overall mark.

They may have punched their ticket to Greensboro with a 66-53 victory over Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament on Thursday, despite losing the following day to top-seeded Michigan State, 64-56. For the team and its fans, it will be a chance to revel in the excitement of the Big Dance, which dominates the nation's sports pages this time of year.

"When Coach (Tubby) Smith came here, one of the main things he emphasized was going to the NCAA tournament," said senior Jon Williams, the only current Gopher who participated in the tournament in 2005. "He told us he was going to do everything to make us better players. I think last year we were a good team and now we're an even better team. There's nothing but progress this year and I'm sure there's more to come."

The women will be making their eighth NCAA tournament appearance and sixth during the seven-year tenure of coach Pam Borton. In 2004 the Gophers made a thrilling run during the tournament, beating UCLA, Kansas State, Boston College, and then Duke to advance to the Final Four. They finally bowed out to Connecticut in another thrilling game in New Orleans. Last year Minnesota lost its first round NCAA game to Texas, 72-55.

The Gophers finished the season in fifth place in the Big Ten with an overall record of 19-11. The game against Notre Dame (22-8) will tip off at approximately 1:30 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.

Hockey teams extend their seasons

Basketball, as fans of the maroon and gold know, is far from being the only sport in town this time of year, and other Gopher teams are immersed in their own playoff marches.

The men's hockey team swept its opening-round, best-of-three WCHA tournament series with St. Cloud State this weekend, winning 4-2 Friday and 3-0 Saturday. (The sweep gave the Gophers a perfect 6-0 record against the Huskies this year.)

That puts Don Lucia's team, which has a 17-12-7 record this year, into the WCHA's Final Five next weekend at the Xcel Energy Center for the 11th year in a row. Minnesota will face UMD—which swept Colorado College on the road—on Thursday at 7 p.m.

The women's hockey team continued its impressive season with a tense, 4-3 win over Boston College in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament Saturday at Ridder Arena. That puts the second-seeded Gophers (32-4-3) into the Frozen Four next weekend in Boston, where they will face Mercyhurst in a semifinal game on Friday. The other semifinal match-up will feature top-seed Wisconsin against defending national champion UMD. The winners will meet for the 2009 championship on Sunday, March 22, at 11 a.m.

The Gophers jumped to an early 2-0 lead against Boston College barely three minutes into the game on a pair of power-play goals by co-captain Gigi Marvin, her 27th and 28th tallies of the year. After Boston College scored to make it 2-1, Minnesota answered with two more quick goals in the span of 42 seconds—an unassisted goal by Rachael Drazan and a tip-in by Brittany Francis off a shot by co-captain Melanie Gagnon—and nine minutes into the game it appeared as if the home team would coast to an easy win.

But the Eagles mounted an impressive comeback over the final two periods, and it took a good deal of penalty killing in the second period and solid goaltending by Alyssa Grogan (who was credited with an assist on Marvin's first goal) to preserve the victory.

The trip to the Frozen Four will be the Gophers' first since 2006 and first under head coach Brad Frost. Minnesota won back-to-back Frozen Four titles in 2004 and 2005.

"I'm really proud of the way the players battled and competed," Frost said after the game. "It was a heck of a hockey game. I don't think anybody thought we were going to jump out like that and score 4 goals in the first [nine] minutes. Once we were up 4-1, I don't think anybody anticipated that it would be coming down to the final seconds either and be a one-goal game. But we're ecstatic that we're heading to Boston and helping to represent the WCHA. Our season is still alive, so we're very happy about that, and look forward to playing Mercyhurst on Friday."

For more information on all of the University of Minnesota's sports teams, visit  GopherSports.com.

Watch a  video about the four first-year players on the women's basketball team, all of whom are from Minnesota.

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