Cancun Challenge marks nonconference halfway point for women’s basketball

Landon Dierks, Sports Editor

After starting the season 0-2, the South Dakota State women’s basketball team picked up three straight wins prior to a Thanksgiving trip to Mexico.

The Jackrabbits kept that momentum going and ran the streak to five, earning two wins in as many days before falling in the final game of the Cancun Challenge.

What makes the most recent trio of wins all the more impressive was the opposition the Jackrabbits were able to best at the round-robin tournament.

SDSU began the tournament with a 61-50 win over AP No. 21 South Florida (5-2). Though the game was close the whole way, a 23-point fourth quarter outburst highlighted by a 20-6 run to end the game gave the Jacks the opening win of the tournament on Thanksgiving morning.

“The biggest part of the game was that fourth quarter,” SDSU coach Aaron Johnston said in a postgame radio interview. “In the third quarter I thought we lost a little bit of our fight and toughness. We gave up some easy, uncharacteristic plays on defense … Offensively you could see we lost a little bit of our mojo. But that fourth quarter we really responded.”

As they’ve done throughout the young season junior Myah Selland and sophomore Paiton Burckhard led the way for the Jacks. Selland scored a game-high 17 points, while Burckhard added 16 points and nine rebounds.

Playing without starting senior forward Tagyn Larson, who did not travel due to an injury sustained in practice last week, the Jacks had to find a temporary replacement for one of the more productive two-way players in the lineup.

Against the Bulls, it was freshman Kallie Thiesen who stepped up in 19 minutes off the bench, scoring 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting and blocking a shot.

South Florida’s Bethy Mununga was the lone bright spot for the Bulls, recording a 15-point, 12-rebound double-double in only 25 minutes. But her post presence wasn’t enough to make up for the Bulls’ 4-of-29 shooting from 3-point range.

“We definitely came in with more confidence than the beginning of the year,” said SDSU sophomore Sydney Stapleton, who scored 16 points and made four 3s on the weekend, after the opening win. “We’ve been clicking day by day and getting better. We knew it was coming soon.”

Finishing the game strong was a welcome sight for Johnston’s team, which fell short on the road against Drake and Creighton earlier in the season.

“We’ve had some close games early this year where we didn’t finish well and could’ve won,” Johnston said. “It was great to see us respond and feel good about the fight we put into it and get rewarded with a win.”

SDSU’s second opponent of the weekend was defending national runner-up Notre Dame.

While the Fighting Irish fell just outside of the AP Top 25 last week for the first time in more than a decade, they are still receiving votes and remain a respected women’s basketball power.

It was SDSU that jumped out to an early advantage — one it would maintain for much of the first half, but Notre Dame would not go quietly.

The Fighting Irish stormed back in the third quarter, took the lead early in the fourth and threatened to pull away, but the Jackrabbits pulled together and scored 20 points in the final 10 minutes to edge Notre Dame (4-4), 65-59.

“When you lead for 35 minutes it shouldn’t be quite as stressful as that one turned out to be, especially the third quarter,” Johnston said.

But when the Jacks needed it, individuals stepped up to make the plays necessary for a win over another quality opponent.

“We were just trying to stay composed out there,” junior Tylee Irwin said after the game. “I know it’s a game of runs. We all looked at each other and said, ‘This is our game, we just have to get back to what we were in before.’ We really did that.”

Friday’s win was the 1,000th in the history of Jackrabbit women’s basketball. SDSU became the 14th Division I program to reach 1,000 wins.

“We’re one of only 14,” Johnston said. “There’s 350 Division I teams, so to be one of 14 in a long history of women’s basketball is special.”

It was Larson’s replacement in the starting five, freshman Tori Nelson, who made perhaps the biggest impact in the narrow victory. Nelson led the team with 15 points and 13 rebounds in just her third collegiate start.

“She was way more assertive offensively today,” Johnston said. “As a freshman, the sky is the limit for her. She can do so many things … We played her at the 2-3-4 today and it’s like, ‘You just have to figure it out, Tori,’ I thought she handled that well.”

Burckhard and Selland showed up again for the Jacks, each recording 14 points and grabbing six rebounds on a combined 12-for-15 effort from the field. Selland added seven assists.

“We were a really good team when Paiton and Myah were on the floor together — they were so efficient in what they did,” Johnston said. “Myah is such a good passer and found Paiton a number of times. Everybody played well, but those two, in particular, were such a difference for us when they were on the floor against the zone of Notre Dame.”

For the second consecutive game, the Jacks neutralized the opponent’s 3-point shooting. Notre Dame shot just 1-of-17 from deep, the lone make coming in the final minute of the contest. Katlyn Gilbert led all scorers with 17 points, and Anaya Peoples chipped in 15 points and eight rebounds.

SDSU capped the weekend with a championship matchup Saturday afternoon against Florida Gulf Coast (8-1), which was also 2-0 on the weekend entering the final contest.

“Florida Gulf Coast is one of the most, if not the most athletic team we’re going to see all year,” Kristin Rotert, the director of basketball operations, acknowledged at halftime of the final game.

One year ago, the Eagles traveled to Brookings and left with an 18-point loss after the Jacks ran away with the game in the third quarter — the outcome was a bit different this time around.

SDSU’s seven-point advantage entering the fourth quarter disappeared in the opening moments of the final period as the game became a back-and-forth affair. Selland made a layup with 10 seconds left to give SDSU a one-point lead, but the Eagles made a layup of their own with four seconds remaining to edge the Jacks, 71-70.

“We just kind of didn’t finish the game, particularly in those last 30 seconds,” Johnston said afterward.

Just as it was the day before, Burckhard, Selland and Nelson were looked to frequently on the offensive end. Selland had 20 points and five assists. Burckhard added 17 points and nine rebounds and Nelson finished with 12 points and five rebounds, but it wasn’t quite enough.

“It’s not like they hadn’t had two tough games before us too,” said sophomore Lindsey Theuninck, who scored eight points, grabbed 14 rebounds and dished six assists across the weekend. “I think we played awesome. We played our butts off but came up short. We have to look back and see what we can do so that when this comes up later in the season we don’t have the same feeling we do right now.”

Burckhard and Selland were named to the all-tournament team following strong showings across all three games. Burckhard averaged 15.7 points and 8 rebounds while Sellland averaged 17 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists.

FGCU’s Keri Jewett-Giles and Nasrin Ulel took on most of the scoring load for the Eagles, combining for 40 points, including nine 3-pointers. All told, FGCU shot 13-for-34 from long range.

If there’s one area in which the Jacks need to drastically improve moving forward, it’s valuing the basketball. Across the three games, SDSU had 55 turnovers, though there are other areas Johnston says need work too.

“If you go 4-of-25 from the 3-point line, 11-of-18 from the free throw line and turn it over 22 times, those aren’t very good statistics,” Johnston said following the Notre Dame contest. “Most teams can’t win when that’s what it looks like, but our team defended really hard and made plays when they need to. The best thing is (those stats) are going to improve as our team continues to get more experience.”

Overall, though, Johnston is pleased with where his team is at heading into the second half of a difficult nonconference slate.

“I like a lot of things we did down here this weekend,” Johnston said. “… We’re better now than when we came down and that’s the ultimate goal. I wish we had three wins instead of two, but I like where we’re at and we’ll just keep plugging away.”

Next up for the Jacks (5-3) is a home game against Coppin State at 7 p.m. Dec. 5, at Frost Arena.