Jacks advance in WNIT with 13-point win

Brian Kimmes

Brian Kimmes

In their return to playoff basketball, after a two-year reprieve, the South Dakota State women’s basketball team defeated Illinois State University, 61-48.

Before and during the game, the atmosphere in Frost Arena was electric, as a season high crowd of 5,719 cheered on the Jacks to victory.

“What an atmosphere,” ISU Head Coach Robin Pingeton said.

The Jacks benefited from playing at home in front of such a large crowd. Pingeton called the crowd SDSU’s “sixth man.”

“The atmosphere you have makes it an awfully tough place to play,” Pingeton said.

The Jackrabbits also felt the impact of the crowd.

“There was a great crowd ? the most we’ve ever played in front of. I think it really added to our play,” sophomore forward Jen Warkenthiem said.

SDSU Head Coach Aaron Johnston said, “(It is) unbelievably difficult to try and get into something on the offensive end if you’re on somebody else’s floor and everybody is screaming ? I thought our fans played a really big role.”

With so much excitement surrounding the game, it would have been easy for the Jacks to be overwhelmed and play with too much emotion.

“I think the whole atmosphere made everybody kind of jittery ? just playing in front of that many people just kind of gets you a little nervous sometimes,” junior center Courtney Grimsrud said.

SDSU stumbled initially out of gate, falling behind 6-3, but the Lady Jacks quickly responded. Layups by Megan Vogel, Maria Boever, Andrea Verdegan and Griumsrud led the Jacks to a 14-2 run, capped by a Vogel 3-pointer. With a little more than 12 minutes remaining in the half, SDSU lead 17-8.

“I think we handled the emotion of the crowd. I didn’t sense we were rattled. I didn’t sense that we were over-emotional. I thought we really handled the environment well,” Johnston said.

Toward the end of the first half, SDSU appeared to take control of the game. The Jacks used a 7-2 run to expand their lead to seven, with 1:41 to go. However, the Redbirds closed the half strong. Senior guard Megan McCracken nailed a 3-pointer from the corner to bring ISU within three, 33-30, as time expired.

The Redbirds scored first in the second half, bringing them within one. Again, the Jackrabbits responded, rattling off nine straight points, to lead 42-32.

Vogel displayed her passing prowess during the run. In a three-possession series, Vogel sandwiched a basket between two nifty interior passes to Grimsrud. Vogel finished the night with 23 points and four assists.

During the final 10 minutes of the game, SDSU did not lead by less than five points, but the game never felt secure. McCracken nailed a 3-pointer with 5:20 remaining, bringing ISU within five. They would get no closer. In fact, they would get no more points. Ashlea Muckenhirn scored an easy layup with 3:02 remaining, sending the crowd into an uproar. Every seat was emptied as the 5,719 roared with applause. They sensed the Jacks finally secured the victory.

To secure the school’s first WNIT victory, the Jacks used grit, determination and great defense.

“I think we just made hustle plays ? People joke how we’re blue collar, small town kids, I think that’s what makes us successful ? all those little things were what was the difference tonight,” Vogel said.

The Jacks’ had to battle a larger ISU team. McCracken said the Redbirds wanted to take advantage of their size, but it did not happen. ISU’s starting frontcourt combined for only eight points.

“We really had to make an effort to front inside ?so we really focused on that the last couple of days in practice,” Grimsrud said.

In addition to having a size advantage, ISU entered the game averaging 72.8 points per game. Johnson said holding the Redbirds to 24 points below their season average took one of the Jacks’ best overall defensive efforts.

SDSU’s defensive pressure did not go unnoticed by the Redbirds.

“I thought South Dakota State did a great job taking away of our post-game,” Pingeton said. “I think they’re a very fundamentally sound defensive team ? they’re just very aggressive and I think that might be some of the best defensive we’ve played against all year long.”

With Vogel being the only person with playoff experience, the Jacks had questions as to how their inexperienced players would handle the pressure of the playoffs. Now, the Lady Jacks know the young players can handle the playoff atmosphere. Johnston said freshmen Maria Boever and Ketty Cornerman, and sophomore Alison Anderson reacted well to the pressure.

“I think that it instills a sense of confidence in us, that we got our first win, that we got the jitters out. We’re ready to play and get the job done,” Warkenthiem said.

SDSU hosts third-round WNIT action either on March 21 or 22, with the opponent, time and exact day to be announced later. Tickets for the game go on sale at 1 p.m. on Monday, March 19.

#1.883674:884265652.JPG:IMG_0287.JPG:Coach Aaron Johnston discusses the game-plan during a timeout on Saturday night. :