The team that went into the season as runaway favorites to repeat as Summit League champions is now stuck back in the pack.
After dropping four of its last seven games and already losing twice as many conference games as it did last season, the SDSU women’s basketball team will not have an easy road if it hopes to recapture the magic it had during last season’s NCAA tournament run.
Losses at Utah and Iowa, both NCAA tournament qualifiers last season, were disappointing but not totally shocking. The Jacks followed that up by winning two at home against Northern Iowa, 71-58, and embarrassing Centenary (1-16, 0-6), 82-35. The next home game versus Oral Roberts was not as easy.
The Golden Eagles (10-7, 4-2) led the entire game, including a 52-33 halftime lead – the largest deficit in more than 10 years (which is as far as records go back). The Jacks would hold ORU to nearly half that total, 29 points, in the second half but could never get to within single digits until the final seconds.
“Momentum was certainly a big part of this game for them (ORU),” said head coach Aaron Johnston. “A lot of that is really good offense. They really spread you out, and they do a good job of penetrating and kicking out. Some of it is poor defense. We did not defend penetration very well. We just weren’t aggressive enough defensively.
“Offensively I thought that we played okay, but 23 turnovers are just too many, and so many of those turnovers led to points. A lot of their transition and buckets that created their momentum came off of turnovers.”
The loss was the Jacks’ first in home conference play after going 19-0 during two-plus seasons. It was also the second home loss of the season, the most SDSU has had since 2000-01.
“Every run comes to an end, and nothing lasts forever,” Johnston said. “We’ve had so many good runs, it seems like every once in a while the good ones are going to come to an end, and it gives us a chance to start them up again.”
The Jackrabbits bounced back on Jan. 9 with a road win at Southern Utah 59-45, despite making only one shot in the final seven minutes and not showing the type of effort that Johnston would like to see.
“Our starting group did so well at the beginning of the game, and not a stinking one of them came out of halftime with any level of effort,” he said. “I know sometimes that’s hard, and we don’t want to be critical of our players, but I don’t know how else to describe it. That’s about as accurate as I can possibly be, and I’m just getting kind of frustrated with that idea.”
Kristin Rotert led the way with 14 points and 11 rebounds, her first career double-double.
Two nights later on Jan. 11, SDSU would lose to UMKC (7-9, 4-1) 67-64 to break their 10-game Summit League road-winning streak.
Turnovers would again bother the Jacks, as they committed 18 of them to the Kangaroos’ nine. SDSU never had the lead in the game, and even though they cut an early 15-point, second-half deficit down to one possession numerous times, Johnston said he never felt like the team was in it.
“It seemed like we were a little bit flat from the beginning and never really made a serious run,” he said. “We got back in it the second half a little bit, but I didn’t feel like we controlled any part of the game. We never had the aggressive edge in this game.”
The Jackrabbits (8-8, 4-2) go on the road to face rival North Dakota State (9-7, 4-2) on Jan. 16 at 7 p.m., a game that can be seen live on KSFY. SDSU, along with the Bison and Oral Roberts, is among three teams tied for third place, a half-game behind UMKC and a game-and-a-half behind conference leader IPFW (7-8, 5-0).
After dominating the Summit League for the past two seasons – the Jacks were 39-3 against conference teams before the Oral Roberts loss – Johnston knows that SDSU has gotten the league’s attention.
“I don’t know if it’s a target, but I think people are getting tired of South Dakota State. I would,” he said. “We went through it years ago in the old NCC with a couple of teams that won all the time, and you just get tired of it. You build up a little more toughness to take those people down. When you are up there, sometimes you build up a little complacency.
“I am sure it’s going to be a different year,” Johnston said. “I really do. It’ll be fun, too, and I look forward to that.”