Green Bay guard Natalie McNeal (11), second from left, races...

Green Bay guard Natalie McNeal (11), second from left, races onto the court as the team celebrates defeating Cleveland State in the championship game of the women's NCAA college basketball Horizon League Conference Tuesday, March 12, 2024, in Indianapolis. McNeal scored a career-high 32 points to go with eight rebounds and No. 2 seed Green Bay took down No. 1 seed Cleveland State 64-40. Credit: AP/Doug McSchooler

Tears started streaming down the cheeks of coach Kevin Borseth's wife and daughter even before they welled up in his own eyes and eventually those of his Green Bay players.

Finally, after snapping a five-year NCAA Tournament drought by winning the Horizon League postseason title, the emotions came pouring out. By Sunday's selection show, Green Bay's players were hooting and hollering for television cameras with a message from their tradition-rich program to the rest of the college basketball world.

The Phoenix are back and they're rising again.

“He (Borseth) has won it several times, but I saw him crying before the game,” said guard Cassie Schiltz, her voice starting to crack. “To be able to do this with him, it means so much. He cares about us as players, but he cares about more us as people, and he values family. So to do it all together with our families, it's just awesome."

By the time Schiltz finished, Borseth and tourney MVP Natalie McNeal were wiping their eyes, too.

Perhaps no Green Bay player understood the full significance of what last week's 64-40 victory meant better than Schiltz, who grew in the 2,500-person enclave of Luxemburg, Wisconsin, 17 miles east of Green Bay.

She was a fan of the Phoenix (27-6) during that 22-year span when they made 18 NCAA tourney appearances. She dreamed of playing for Borseth, who won 216 games in his first nine seasons in Green Bay and 294 in the dozen seasons since returning to Green Bay after five seasons at Michigan.

Green Bay players celebrate on the bench during the second...

Green Bay players celebrate on the bench during the second half against Cleveland State in the championship game of the women's NCAA college basketball Horizon League Conference Tuesday, March 12, 2024, in Indianapolis. Credit: AP/Doug McSchooler

And she endured the pain of three straight conference tourney losses to Cleveland State, including a bitter 73-61 loss in the 2023 championship game — a loss that extended Green Bay's drought.

This time, Schiltz and her teammates made sure it was no contest.

Means finished with 32 points and eight rebounds while going 15 of 21 from the field. Schiltz added eight points, six rebounds and five assists before, finally, posing with the league's coveted “punched ticket” placard.

“You know we ended their season the last three years and there's no doubt they showed up and said It’s not going to happen again," Cleveland State coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “They really came after us, their players were ready to play, and they did not want to experience some of the frustrations they've experienced in the past.”

Green Bay players celebrate after beating Cleveland State in the...

Green Bay players celebrate after beating Cleveland State in the championship game of the women's NCAA college basketball Horizon League Conference Tuesday, March 12, 2024, in Indianapolis. Credit: AP/Doug McSchooler

For the 69-year-old Borseth, whose career has been filled with joyous moments, excruciating disappointments, one unforgettable postgame rant and a pure love of family, it will go down as one of his most cherished memories — even if he didn't see everything.

While Green Bay's players repeatedly chased down loose balls, the two freshmen from Minnesota, Maren Westin and Sophie Lahti, were doing a do-si-do on the bench.

And when Borseth screamed for players to “hunt their opportunity” between the third and fourth quarters, they obliged. The fans responded in kind, chanting M-V-P as McNeal made her final free throws and sharing a hug with Borseth when he took her out.

“It's just enjoying every moment as they come and like coach said, I came to Green Bay with hopes of being on a winning team like this," McNeal said. “So it's really rewarding to have teammates like Cassie and coach Borseth up here that made this dream a reality.”

The 11th-seeded Phoenix are headed to Raleigh, North Carolina, on Saturday where they will face another traditional power trying to reclaim its previous status, sixth-seeded Tennessee (19-12). If they beat the Volunteers, who went 5-4 over their last nine SEC games, they could face third-seeded North Carolina State.

Green Bay reached the second round five times between 2003 and 2012 — making its first two trips with Borseth as head coach — and it beat Niagara in a first-round WNIT game last year.

“It’s been a while since we’ve been there and it feels like the first time, you know someone had that song,” Borseth said. “I don’t know the saying, but it feels like the first time, it really does. I’m thrilled for the players on this team.”

The question, of course, is whether Green Bay can recreate the scene that played out in Indianapolis with Borseth hugging his teary-eyed wife and daughter on the court before leading fans and the pep band in chants of “We are, Green Bay.”

But even if the tears start flowing for a different reason Saturday, these 13 players, 12 of whom could be back next season, know they and Borseth accomplished one mission by putting the Phoenix back in the national spotlight.

“I grew up close to Green Bay and just went to all the games, and it was my dream to get to the NCAA Tournament. It took a few years, but we did it," Schiltz said. “We had a couple alumni in the stands that traveled (to Indianapolis) just to watch because of this man right here. He's a great coach, a great person and it's just so fulfilling to play for him.”

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