‘Basketball Capital of the World: Mankato, Minnesota’

The Maverick community rallied at the “Welcome Home Celebration” event at the Taylor Center Monday to honor the historic feat that will be ingrained in Mankato sports history forever; both mens and womens teams becoming National Champions in the same season. 

The celebration included all walks of life throughout Mankato. Fans young, old and everyone in between crowded the seats of Bresnan Arena to hear first-hand stories from Mankato’s newest champions. 

“I cannot think of a better way to go out with these ladies and also with the men too. We are each other’s biggest fans,” women’s basketball team captain Joey Batt said.

In 24 hours, the Maverick basketball program achieved something done only once before. On Friday, the women’s basketball team stole the game from Texas Woman’s University, 89-73 to win their second program National Championship. 

The next day, the men’s team played a back and forth championship game that featured 13 lead changes and eight ties. It was capped off in typical March Madness style; a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Kyreese Willingham assisted by his brother Malik to win the game 88-85. 

On Monday the teams’ home court had a center stage that highlighted Mankato’s finest. On the stage sat Mayor Najwa Massad, President Edward Inch, Director of Alumni Relations Brian Zins, Athletic Director Kevin Buisman, Student Body President Sierra Roiger and Minnesota Timberwolves owner, and MSU alum, Glen Taylor. All gave speeches praising the team’s achievements. 

During the event the women’s team sat on the right side and the men’s on the left. Showcased next to each team was the NCAA DII National Championship trophies. 

Other Maverick athletes, media and alumni also packed the arena to hear the inside stories of the greatness that unfolded this year. 

The speeches echoed with themes of passion, resilience and teamwork as each speaker tried to convey how incredible the team’s achievements were. Head coaches Emilee Thiesse and Matt Margenthaler also spoke, followed by Batt and Malik Willingham. 

The speeches brought tears, laughter and countless standing ovations. 

Thiesse opened the team’s speeches. She thanked Maverick Nation and the athletic offices for being their biggest supporters. Her passion shined through as she also shouted out the 2009 women’s basketball National Championship team — the only other champions in program history, and the old roster made sure to support the team in the final game as they sat right behind the Maverick bench. 

“Those individuals paved the way for this team,” Thiesse said. “I think it gave us so much confidence through our run through the tournament to us knowing it’s been done before. They were with us through every step of this journey.” 

Uproars and cheers came and went throughout Thiesse’s speech and they returned instantly with Margenthaler’s.

“This is the most selfless basketball team I’ve ever had in 23 years and that’s why we are here right now,” Margenthaler said during his speech. 

He also let tears jerk as he touched on his dad, Jack Margenthaler, who was a longtime coach for Western Illinois University. His father never won a championship but he traveled to each game during the Mavericks’ run and watched his son win in his honor.  

Laughter and another standing ovation returned as Malik took the stage. So did tears. 

Willingham’s charisma and personality shined through from the moment he took the stage to the moment he left. It was a perfect way to end the celebration. Approaching the stage he raised his hands and yelled, “Make some more noise, man!” 

He carried this energy into his speech as he talked about his last five years on the team. When he joined the team he noticed the final-four banner hanging in Bresnan Arena; he wanted to put one right next to it that says “National Championship.” 

In high school he made varsity his senior year. Throughout his years he played side by side with his brother Kyreese. Their goal since being kids was to raise a banner. This goal was carried over to the collegiate level as they did not win a Minnesota State Championship for Waseca. 

While Malik cracked jokes and made light of this situation, emotions began as he reflected on his time growing up with Kyreese and his grandmother. 

“I haven’t cried all week, man,” Malik said.

Through the tears, the crowd uplifted him with cheers, claps and whistles. Both teams looked upon him with emotional eyes as he regrouped and carried on.

“It meant so much seeing how happy my grandma was after the game. It means so much to me and Ky from where we came from. We always knew we were going to be champions,” Malik said. 

“We made our dreams come true bro. I love all you guys. Kyreese is my real brother but all you guys are my brothers too.” 

Following his speech the night shifted into autographs with players and pictures with Stomper. Little kids ran around with joy as they got to meet their favorite players. They called them their “idols,” and admired the championship trophies. Long time fans conversed about their time watching the Mavericks and news sources took pictures and videos to showcase the event.  

Buisman said he believed both teams’ dedication to the sport year in and year out set them up for championship-level success.

“This team adopted a resilient attitude and transformed the most difficult situations into the greatest of outcomes,” Buisman said when talking about the men’s basketball buzzer-beater game winning shot. 

Buisman said that these situations are not generated from luck. He quoted Roman philosopher Seneca saying, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” 

Inch held each team in great respects. He and Buisman drove back and forth from Evansville Indiana to St.Joseph Missouri to catch all six games played in the Elite Eight, Final Four and National Championship. 

“I got to watch six of the very best basketball games I’ve ever seen,” Inch said. 

Header photo: (Dylan Long)

Write to Luke Jackson at

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