Conference play brings fresh start for State basketball

Landon Dierks, Sports Editor

Prior to winter break, both South Dakota State basketball teams were in the midst of a battle — neither of which was against an on-court opponent. The men, whose road schedule started with a double-overtime win at California State University, Bakersfield Nov. 9, hadn’t been able to replicate their success away from Frost Arena.

An 81-78 loss in the Summit League opener at the University of Nebraska Omaha Dec. 29, marked the Jackrabbits’ seventh consecutive road loss since their initial success out west.

To the young squad’s credit, each of those defeats was, in some manner, competitive. Of the seven losses, four came by seven points or fewer and the other three were sub-20-point losses to schools from power conferences (Southern California, Nebraska and Indiana).

Adding to the early season adversity, guards Brandon Key and Tray Buchanan went down with injuries within days of each other in mid-December and haven’t seen the floor since. After a win over Oral Roberts Jan. 2, head coach Eric Henderson was hopeful Key could return by the end of January, while Buchanan’s injury is likely to keep him out for several more weeks.

But since the calendar turned to January 2020, the men have been able to overcome the injuries in the backcourt and struggles on the road.

Between Jan. 2 and 11, the Jacks played four times. Their mark in those games — 4-0.

Each has been impressive in its own way. The first was a beatdown of ORU in which SDSU put a season-high 96 points on the scoreboard. Two days later, the Jacks surpassed the 90-point threshold again in a 35-point romp over Western Illinois.

Then, in the first road contest of 2020, last-place Denver used hot-shooting to go up 11 points early in the second half. Henderson’s squad responded by holding the Pioneers to 18.8% shooting after halftime on the way to an 80-68 win headlined by a career-high 31-point outing from Douglas Wilson.

“When you play through adversity, you’re really proud of your guys when it’s not perfect but you come away with the outcome you want,” Henderson said after the game.

Three nights later, the Jacks built a large lead in the first half and had to withstand a furious comeback attempt at Purdue Fort Wayne in a 70-61 win.

Instead of looking to Wilson, who ranks second in the Summit League in scoring with an average of 17.4 points per game, it was David Wingett who provided the necessary offensive spark. The freshman netted a career-high 24 points on 6-of-9 shooting from 3-point range after finishing as the only starter not to reach double figures in Denver.

“It was a big week for us,” Henderson said of the pair of road wins in his Jan. 13 update with “We haven’t had a ton of success on the road to date. We won our first game and hadn’t won on the road since. But we were getting closer and I knew it was just a matter of time. Our team sticks together, they play super unselfish and really share the basketball, so you knew it was going to happen, you just didn’t know when. To get a couple this weekend certainly felt good and I was proud of our guys.”

The ability of multiple players contributing from game to game has been what’s spurred the four-game spurt and Henderson points to his team’s commitment to sharing the basketball and scoring in different ways as the key to those contributions.

“We’ve been so lucky and fortunate to have guys like Mike Daum and Nate Wolters who can go give you 25 per night,” Henderson said. “I never knew if we’d have that, but I knew we’d have different guys capable of that on different nights. … That’s something unique and special about this group — you don’t have to rely on one guy every single night.”

That leaves Henderson and company atop the Summit League standings with a 13-7 record (4-1 Summit) and a perfect 10-0 mark inside Frost Arena, which can be added to against the University of North Dakota at 7 p.m. Wednesday before a rivalry clash with the University of South Dakota at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in Vermillion.

On the women’s side, injuries have been a paramount issue ever since Tagyn Larson missed five games early in the season with a head injury.

Preseason All-Summit League first-teamer Myah Selland has appeared in only nine games — none since Dec. 5 — and head coach Aaron Johnston does not seem optimistic she’ll be back any time soon. Compounding the issue even further, the freshman initially tasked with filling Selland’s place in the starting lineup, Tori Nelson, has missed two separate multi-game stretches with foot and ankle trouble since an initial injury Dec. 8.

In the frontcourt, Kallie Theisen, another freshman who played nearly 16 minutes per game off the bench and flashed strengths as a rebounder and interior defender early this season, suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the nonconference finale Dec. 21 at Green Bay.

Only three Jackrabbits — Rylie Cascio Jensen, Tylee Irwin and Lindsey Theuninck — have appeared in every game so far this season, but Johnston has been quick to point out how well his team has adjusted to the multitude of injuries.

“We’ve battled through a lot of different bumps in the road and multiple people have stepped up,” Johnston said in his Jan. 14 update with

Though Theisen’s injury put a damper on an eventual Jackrabbit win, that afternoon also marked a turning point in the Jacks’ season. Going into the game, SDSU had lost four of six games, sat at 7-6 overall and was without leading scorer Paiton Burckhard.

But the win was the first in what now sits at six straight, running the record to 13-6 overall and a perfect 5-0 in conference play, and Johnston’s crew is as healthy as it’s been in more than five weeks. Theuninck has emerged as a quality option for the fifth starting spot, Sydney Stapleton and Megan Bultsma have played key roles off the bench and SDSU has found its winning formula.

Upcoming tests against UND (Jan. 16) and USD (Jan. 18) — the two schools alongside SDSU at the top of the conference standings — will prove as a midseason measuring stick for how the shorthanded Jacks stack up against the best the league has to offer.

All things considered, Johnston thinks his team is in a good spot heading into the challenges ahead.

“I really like where we’re at and I like the fact there are things we can improve on,” Johnston said after the Dec. 4 win over Western Illinois. “We’ve overcome a lot to play good basketball.”