It was one of the most disappointing games in his young coaching career, but Matt Fletcher didn't want his Bethany Lutheran men's basketball team looking back at last season's loss to St. Scholastica in the semifinals of the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference tournament.

Focus on the future, prepare to win, different result.

It worked.

"We didn't talk about last year at all," said Fletcher, in his second season as the Bethany head coach. "We didn't talk about how we didn't shoot it well, or didn't play well. But I think that showed the players who were here last year what it takes to win and just how hard it is to win a tournament game."

These are exciting times for basketball at Bethany, with both the men's and women's teams playing in the UMAC tournament championship Saturday, looking for the first NCAA berth for either program.

The women's team has the tougher road following Wednesday's 76-64 win over Minnesota-Morris. The Vikings, who have never played in the conference tournament championship game, set a single-season record with 20 victories, but two of the six losses have come from Wisconsin-Superior, the regular-season champs who will host Saturday's finale.

The top-seeded men's team overwhelmed Minnesota-Morris 112-69 in Wednesday's semifinal game of the UMAC tournament and will host Northwestern, which has won the last seven postseason conference championships. The Vikings were the top seed in 2012 and made it to championship game in 2013, losing to Northwestern both times.

Last season, it seemed like things might be different. The Vikings won the last six games of the regular season to get a home tournament game, but St. Scholastica came to town and won easily, 90-70.

"That was a tough one," Fletcher said. "It was a great learning experience for me, and a great learning experience for the guys who played that game. Everybody was in over their heads, playing a team like Scholastica, who plays in the tournament every year."

Perhaps, that disappointing loss provided some motivation for Wednesday's performance, the most points scored and largest margin of victory this season. Brady Rose had a career-high 27 points, which included six 3-pointers, and Neil Eichten added 13 assists. There was a 31-3 run late in the first half that pretty much settled the outcome.

However, that was just a semifinal victory, which is not the ultimate prize. That automatic NCAA berth is the next step for this improving program, which hopes to do what Northwestern has already done. The teams split during the regular season, with each winning on its home court. Northwestern is methodical, while Bethany wants to push the tempo.

Come 3 p.m. Saturday, at Bethany's Sports & Fitness Center, the team that plays at its pace will likely be celebrating. Bethany knows the agony of defeat. The Vikings would like to give the thrill of victory a whirl.

"Our seniors who played last year know how we have to prepare, and we've had some of our best practices in the last week," Fletcher said. "The thing I really liked is that when I walked into the locker room (after Wednesday's victory), they were excited, but they expected to win. There's been a change in the culture of our program." 

Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, e-mail at ccourrier@mankatofreepress.com or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.

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