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Traxler: Strength paves road to the national title game for Tigers

The DWU Tigers celebrate their 81-66 win over Saint Xavier University during a game in the semifinals of the NAIA Division II National Tournament on Monday at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa. (Matt Gade / Republic)

SIOUX CITY, Iowa—Saint Xavier coach Bob Hallberg grabbed a seat in the media interview room at the Tyson Events Center Monday night.

He was exhausted and more importantly, his team was exhausted, beaten for just the third time this season. That's what Dakota Wesleyan does to teams.

The 81-66 Tiger win was close most of the way but DWU outmuscled the Cougars on the glass by 23 rebounds and wore out another one of the best teams in the country for 40 minutes.

It was another quintessential victory for this era of Tiger teams: balanced on offense, tough on defense and able to come at the opponent in waves. With capable bench players, DWU seemingly had players take turns down the stretch making big shots and getting defensive stops.

Just two years ago, some of the same Tigers playing Monday were new to the national tournament. At the time, DWU coach Jason Christensen said it was the biggest game he had ever coached in, and that was for a first-round game DWU won by double digits.

With that in mind, it would seem the Tigers might be nervous to be among the last four teams playing, and for not only the women's basketball program's first national title, but the first national championship of any kind for a DWU team.

Nope, said DWU junior guard Rylie Osthus.

"We focused mainly on one game at a time, you have to focus on one team," she said. "After we beat Southeastern (on Saturday), we knew we were going to play Saint Xavier, so you need to focus on them. You're going worry about right now and what you need to do to beat this team. That's how we've been approaching this every day."

Playing in a rugged conference—the Great Plains Athletic Conference—has prepared DWU for this moment. It also prepared Concordia University and Northwestern College, too, the other two semifinalists playing Monday night from the GPAC. Concordia, a top-two nationally ranked team all season, took down the Red Raiders 84-77 to set up the title tussle.

Hallberg gave his team—with undersized guards and a short bench—some credit for ruining the GPAC party as much as they could. The Cougars beat Morningside in the second round and Hastings in the quarterfinals before meeting their match with DWU on Monday.

"We didn't get invited to the GPAC finals," Hallberg said. "It was supposed to be four GPAC teams. We had to crash the party."

Both DWU and Concordia know each other as well as any two teams possibly could. They've played all sorts of styles, with the last two games being 55-42 and 90-88 Bulldog victories. It will come down to heart and wanting it more, Christensen said.

Only the strongest teams make it this far. DWU didn't win four tournament games by accident and Tiger fans will do what they can to turn the neutral site in Sioux City into a home venue, even letting classes out early to make it happen.

DWU now has a chance to crash the Concordia coronation. The stronger of the two teams will make it happen.

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