The Twin Cities sports pages have struggled with precise identification in occasional references to Northwestern, the small Christian college located on the northern edge of Roseville.
The simple use of “Northwestern” causes readers automatically to take a glance near the bottom of the Big Ten football or basketball standings. And Northwestern (Roseville) is an address, but not an identifier used by the school.
The school changed its official title to University of Northwestern–St. Paul in July 2013. How about University of Northwestern in the first reference and UNW for headlines?
You see that — UNW — on some of the sports garb worn by athletes and students.
We need something, because the university clearly has bigger things planned for the Eagles. The school has a brand-new, $11.2 million complex of venues for football, baseball, softball, tennis, soccer and lacrosse.
And here’s the headline: The bigger things already have started at UNW, with last weekend’s shocking events inside St. Norbert’s basketball arena in De Pere, Wis.
Northwestern was the representative of the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference in the men’s Division III national tournament. The conference joined the NCAA seven years ago and started receiving an automatic bid to the D-III tournament for the 2010-11 season.
All of these bids have gone to Northwestern — and with what outside observers of the UMAC would deem predictable results.
“We had lost four times in the first round, but always on the home court of a high-seeded team,” UNW coach Tim Grosz said. “Three times, we lost to the eventual national champion. So, being 0-4 in the tournament wasn’t as bad as it sounds.
“We had St. Thomas, the No. 3 team in country, last Friday, but at least it was on a neutral court. We were encouraged by that.”
For good reason.
Northwestern hung tough with the Tommies, winners of their 10th consecutive Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title this winter, and gained a 68-68 tie on Cory Sprenger’s three-pointer with 13 seconds left.
Grant Shaeffer drove for a layup to put the Tommies in front. There were six seconds left. The Eagles’ Porter Morrell tossed the ball to Sprenger, “the fastest player on the team,” he later explained.
Sprenger encountered a pair of Tommies over the midcourt line and bounced a pass to the hustling Morrell. He fired from 23 feet, the red lights went on as the ball was in the air, and then …
ESPN “Sports Center.’’ Top 10 plays of the night. Morrell’s three to upset St. Thomas, 71-70.
After the maddened celebration, Grosz said: “It was a huge win for us and for our conference.”
Indeed. In these parts, the MIAC is the handsome favored son of Division III athletics and the UMAC is the clumsy cousin.
Another huge victory followed Saturday, as the Eagles scored 52 points in the second half and defeated Elmhurst (Ill.), 84-75. They are on to D-III’s Sweet Sixteen to play East Texas Baptist on Friday in Stevens Point, Wis.
St. Olaf, the MIAC runner-up, also won twice last weekend and will play Marietta (Ohio) on Friday in Rock Island, Ill.
Tony Taylor, an assistant to Dan Kosmoski at St. Olaf, sent a text to Grosz late Friday with this message:
“Wouldn’t it be something if we both made it to Salem,” meaning Salem, Va., site of D-III’s Final Four.
It’s already something for the Oles, another team that never had won an NCAA tournament game. As for the Eagles, we don’t want to throw around “miracle” lightly, but before you dismiss the notion completely, consider two things:
• This school is the descendant of Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School, and it has a history that includes a gentleman named the Rev. Billy Graham having been its president (1947-52).
• The 2014-15 Eagles were 2-9 after being crushed 82-60 by St. Olaf in Northfield on Dec. 22.
“The loss to the Oles was the first time that we were never in it,” Grosz said. “The next game was the start of conference play on Jan. 10. We gave everyone two weeks off for the Christmas break, and they came back with the attitude that we still could be a good team.”
The Eagles went 14-0 in the regular season, then 2-0 in the playoffs to get the UMAC’s automatic bid. Hardly anyone noticed, because hardly anyone ever notices what happens in the UMAC.
And then Morrell showed up on “SportsCenter,’’ hitting a three, and a lot of people noticed. So much so, that the Eagles received cheers from neutral parties when they stopped in an Applebee’s after the victory over Elmhurst.
“People were saying, ‘Hey, you’re the team we saw running around, celebrating, after hitting that shot last night; that was great,’ ” Grosz said. “For us, for our conference, it’s definitely that.”