North Dakota State's women's basketball team beat Denver in the quarterfinals of the Summit League tournament Sunday afternoon. That will be the headline, as it should be. It had been 11 years since NDSU won a conference tournament game.

The victory advances the Bison to the semifinals Monday, when they will play South Dakota State. Barring a major upset, the Jackrabbits will beat the Bison -- and probably by a healthy margin. That means NDSU's season will have been extended by one day more than expected based on seedings. NDSU was the tournament sixth seed, Denver was third.

That one day, though, is important for the Bison in the big picture.

It represents progress. Forward momentum. Hope.

Even more than victories, that's what has been lacking for the last decade. There's been no belief -- from the fans, the alumni, the media and in recent years even within the NDSU athletic department itself -- that the Bison women's program was moving ahead to be relevant again.

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Not that it was expected the Bison were going to overtake the two dominant teams in the Summit League, SDSU and South Dakota. There just needed to be a sign or two that the program was climbing from the bottom of the pack to the middle.


It wasn't there during the tenures of Carolyn DeHoff and Maren Walseth, the two coaches who came after legendary Amy Ruley, who won five NCAA Division II national titles in the glory days of the program in the 1990s.

That changed in April, when NDSU hired Jory Collins to replace Walseth as the head coach. Collins came to Fargo from Emporia State in Kansas and immediately made an impression on those handful of folks who still paid attention to the once-great Bison program.

He did it by being blunt. There was little B.S. from the coach when he assessed the state of his new team.

The Bison, he said, had a couple of good young players who could serve as a foundation in his first season, but overall the team lacked the talent needed to compete with the teams at or near the top of the league.

Collins also said something that was proven true Sunday: He believed the gap between the Bison and the third-place team in the league, no matter who it might be, could be made up reasonably quickly. Displacing USD and SDSU from the top two was another matter entirely.

After a 1-9 start against Division I teams in non-conference play (including 0-7 to begin the season), the Bison are 8-9 against Summit League teams since. Collins did it mostly with players left over from Walseth's final year, from a team that went 7-22 overall and 4-12 in the conference.

Sunday's 72-68 win over Denver was the culmination of the progress NDSU has shown since January. A nice prize.

The difference? Collins has stressed toughness. He's coached to players' strengths instead of forcing them to play a style for which they might not be suited. Practices have been organized and efficient. Collins has probably coached possession-to-possession, calling situational timeouts to set up single plays or defensive calls, more than anytime in his career.

Simply, Collins is just getting more out of this core of players.

Which dangles this teaser: What's he going to be able to do after he fills the roster with his recruits?

If the expected happens against SDSU on Monday, forget about it. Doesn't matter. The intrigue awaits for next season and the coming years.

How good can the Bison get?

It's called anticipation, something lacking in the NDSU women's basketball program for too long.