March madness starts early

Abe Woldeslassie
Photo by Charles Hallman

March annually and typically is a maddening time in college sports, creating scheduling nightmares for multi-sport journalists. The last weekend of this February was no different.

Both the Augsburg women and the Macalester men made the MIAC tournament championship game last Sunday in two distant locales, 84 miles apart and at the same time. The two squads have been on our coverage radar in this first complete college basketball season since COVID has ruled our land, and both teams made historic runs. Unfortunately, both fell short of winning the league crown.

No. 1 Augsburg lost to No. 2 Gustavus Sunday 65-56 for the MIAC championship. No. 6 Macalester fell to top-seeded Saint John’s 75-71. We talked to both league runners-up squads after their games

Unable to snatch the rebound at crucial times, along with cold shooting: “I think that was the biggest difference,” bemoaned Auggies Coach Ted Riverso afterward.

“We felt ready and prepared, and we’re up one at half,” said Scots Coach Abe Woldeslassie. “We lost by four, but the effort was there.”

Sophomore Anja Smith, in her first season at Augsburg, put on one of the most impressive performances in MIAC tournament history in a reserve role: 11 points and seven rebounds against St. Olaf, a team-high 21 points against Hamline, and she led all scorers Sunday with 27 points against Gustavus in the finals. 

Although Smith (Kewaskum, Wis./Saint Mary’s Springs) did not play until December and never started for the Auggies, she ended up being a critical piece of the puzzle this season for the regular-season MIAC champs. 

Smith saw more than 24 minutes per game as Augsburg’s top reserve and finished league play by averaging 16.6 points per game—good for the second-highest clip in the conference this season. She is the second Auggie ever to be named Sixth Player of the Year for women’s basketball, joining 2019 recipient Aiza Wilson.

“We did not think we were going to make it nearly as far as we have,” the 5-10 forward told the MSR.  I’m very, very proud of myself, very proud of my teammates and my coaches for getting us here.”

Photos by Charles Hallman Anja Smith

The season-long historic runs by Augsburg and Macalester go into the MIAC record books.  After an 0-3 start, the Auggies women checked off 13 straight wins and won their first-ever league regular-season title (19-2), earning the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the tourney. 

They easily handled St. Olaf, then rallied from 13 points down to defeat Hamline 75-72 to reach the finals. Augsburg finished 21-6 overall with their third consecutive tournament runners-up trophy.

The Scots men (15-13 overall) also stumbled out of the blocks at the start of the season but righted themselves to a serious tourney run for only the second time in school history. MAC defeated St. Scholastica at home before becoming successful road dogs, knocking off No. 3 Carleton and No. 2 Augsburg to advance to their first MIAC title game since 2004. They play top seed Saint John’s on Sunday.

“We were 4-and-9 at one point,” noted Woldeslassie. “We finished the year winning 11 of our last 15 games. That a six seed made the conference championship game, yeah, that’s a lot to be proud of.”  

Both squads’ hopes of continuing their post-season this month unfortunately were dashed with their respective defeats Sunday. The MIAC tournament winner gets the automatic NCAA Division III bid.

Does the Auggies’ overall record earn them an at-large bid? “No,” Riverso responded.

“We’re hurting a little bit right now,” admitted Woldeslassie, “because we felt like we had a great chance to win.”

Finally…

Our “marching through March” journey continues this weekend as we head to Minnesota’s Ridder Arena for the WCHA Final Faceoff, which features two Black Division I women hockey players.