SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — The core of Wofford’s back-to-back NCAA tournament teams started coming together five years ago in gyms a thousand miles away in Minnesota.
There, senior starters Noah Dahlman, Jamar Diggs and Cameron Rundles played for the same AAU team, forming a friendship that would eventually be strong enough for Dahlman to draw them all back together to Spartanburg and bring the tiny liberal arts college unprecedented basketball success.
As their college careers end, the players who call themselves the “Minnesota Mafia” have one more dream — leaving the court a winner in an NCAA tournament game. The 14th-seeded Terriers will get their last chance Thursday in Denver against No. 3 seed BYU.
“I love those guys to death,” said Rundles, who considered several schools when transferring from Montana before settling on Wofford. “Greatest decision of my life.”
Dahlman came first. He chose Wofford because he wanted to go somewhere much warmer than his parents’ farm in Braham, Minn., about 60 miles north of Minneapolis. He made an immediate impact, with the Terriers finishing 16-16 his freshman year and ending with their first winning record in 14 years in Division I his sophomore year.
But perhaps Dahlman’s biggest move came after his freshman year, when he found out his old AAU buddy Rundles wanted out of Montana. Rundles was thinking about going to Wayne State, where his high school friend from Minneapolis and AAU teammate Diggs started every game as a sophomore.
But Rundles’ mom convinced him to visit Wofford, where Dahlman and coach Mike Young said there was a spot for him and Diggs. They both loved the warm weather, solid academics and Young’s infectious charisma. The Minnesota Mafia was born.
“High character guys,” Young said of the three. “Absolute consummate team guys. I’ve said many times — the sum is greater than the parts, and the parts are awfully good.”
The three first played together last season and led Wofford to 26 wins and the team’s first ever Southern Conference title and NCAA tournament bid. The 13th-seeded Terriers came back from eight down at halftime and were tied with Wisconsin in the final minute before losing by four.
They vowed to return next year, and kept that promise. They don’t fear BYU and Jimmer Fredette, the nation’s leading scored at 27.8 points a game. Diggs, the team’s defense specialist, has dealt with high scorers before. He was assigned to cover College of Charleston’s Andrew Goudelock, the nation’s fourth-leading scorer at 23.4 points a game. He held Goudelock under his average over three games, including this year’s SoCon final.
“One of the best players in the country hands down,” Diggs said of Fredette. “My team wants me to go out there and play defense — that’s what I do. I am looking forward to the opportunity.”
The three players from Minnesota average a combined 46 points a game — nearly two-thirds of Wofford’s total. While Diggs is the defensive stopper, Rundles the shooter and Dahlman the leading scorer and post player.
“At exactly the right time, we were able to put things together,” said Young, who is 136-138 in nine years as Wofford’s head coach.
While the three from Minnesota have formed Wofford’s core, they remain close to the rest of the squad. When asked about Dahlman and Diggs, Rundles veers off and talks about what he likes about nearly every guy on the roster.
“It’s more than a dream come true,” Rundles said not just of making the NCAA tournament twice, but the lifelong friendships he has made at Wofford. “When you’re young, you dream about this.”
The Minnesota Mafia is now thinking about the future. Diggs wants to own a restaurant and an ice cream shop. Rundles and Dahlman both want to coach basketball, an idea that also started at those AAU games they played together in Minnesota.
“It’s been the best experience of my life so far,” Dahlman said, looking at Rundles as he posed for pictures with Terriers fans. “Wofford’s been great and having these Minnesota guys with me, that’s just added to the experience.”
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