MANKATO — Three times in his career, Minnesota State senior Connor O'Brien has been able to celebrate a berth in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, and even though there wasn't much suspense Sunday, he still savors the moment.
"It's always exciting," O'Brien said. "I think we did what we could, and we deserve it. Now we have to take advantage of this opportunity."
For the fourth time in five seasons, Minnesota State will host the Central Region men's basketball tournament, which begins Saturday at Bresnan Arena. The Mavericks rose from No. 2 in the region by winning the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament, while Central Missouri, which was ranked first, lost in the quarterfinals of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament.
Minnesota State will take on Harding, a surprise winner of the Great American Conference tournament championship, in Saturday's quarterfinals at 5 p.m. The winner will face the winner of the 7:30 p.m. game between No. 4 Northwest Missouri State and No. 5 Winona State, the defending champion, in the semifinals Sunday. The championship game will be played at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
In the other bracket, No. 2 Central Missouri will play Arkansas Tech at 2:30 p.m., and No. 3 Missouri Southern will face Fort Hays at noon.
"There are a lot of teams that can win this," Minnesota State coach Matt Margenthaler said. "I think you can see the strength in the south, but to have the tournament here is an advantage."
The Minnesota State women's season ended when top-seeded Harding lost to unranked Southwestern Oklahoma in the GAC final, giving an automatic berth to Southwestern Oklahoma. The Mavericks (23-6) were ranked sixth last week but were bumped out of the top eight by Northern State, which swept two games this season from the Mavericks, and Concordia-St. Paul, who earned the automatic berth by winning the Northern Sun tournament.