State women stunned by Denver

Landon Dierks, Sports Editor

It appears the gap at the top of the Summit League women’s basketball standings may only be widening.

The University of Denver came to Frost Arena and stunned South Dakota State 72-62 Thursday night, effectively dashing any hopes of the Jackrabbits claiming at least a share of the regular season conference title.

“They had a lot of energy, we didn’t,” SDSU head coach Aaron Johnston said. “There’s no good reason for any of those things, we just didn’t have it and they were better than we were throughout most of the game.”

SDSU remains in second place in the league standings, but now sits two full games behind the University of South Dakota.

DU (11-14, 5-7 Summit) was picked to finish third in the conference in the preseason polls but had struggled to win close battles for much of the season, falling by single digits in eight of its 14 losses (including an 86-79 defeat in the teams’ first matchup of the season).

“We’ve had leads or close games we’ve let slip away and we were finally just fed up with it,” said Denver senior Madison Nelson. “I really think our team took the next step here.”

Prior to Thursday, SDSU (18-8, 10-2 Summit) was the only team in the Summit League DU’s current class of seniors hadn’t defeated, meaning the upset had some added significance for Nelson and her teammates. To add to the win, it was only the second-ever win by the Pioneers over SDSU and the first in seven tries at Frost Arena.

“It was a really big deal to our team for a lot of reasons,” said Nelson, who led the Pioneers with a game-high 27 points, nine rebounds and five blocks. “In our four years this is the one team (in the Summit) we’d never beaten, so this was a fun experience. We’ve had some rough bumps along the season, but we always knew we were capable of something like this, so I think this is exactly what we needed to get back on track.”

When these two programs met just over a month ago, SDSU forwards Paiton Burckhard and Megan Bultsma each scored 24 points, leading to a significant change in defensive approach according to Pioneer coach Kayla Ard.

“Last time we played them, they killed us in the post and we made the adjustment too late to the way we were guarding them,” Ard said. “Today we came out starting that way. We didn’t want their posts to touch the ball.”

This time around, Burckhard and Bultsma combined for just 19 points, but the ineffectiveness on offense wasn’t limited to the frontcourt pair. As a team, the Jacks shot just 36.9% for the game, including a 5-for-25 mark from behind the 3-point line.

“We weren’t really connected as a team, weren’t hitting shots,” said senior guard Rylie Cascio Jensen. “That just makes it tough when we’re not all on the same page and we were like that a lot throughout the night.”

Tylee Irwin had 14 points to lead the Jacks on 5-of-17 shooting.

Thursday’s loss might not be quite as alarming, but Johnston has noticed a trend in his team’s recent play at home.

“We’ve had three games in a row now at Frost where we haven’t played exceptionally well, to be honest with you,” Johnston said. “I wish I had a better answer, but I don’t. We just weren’t very good in this one.”

SDSU’s last three outings at home: an eight-point win over North Dakota State (sixth place) in which they trailed much of the second half, a 10-point win over the University of Nebraska Omaha (eighth place) and the loss to Denver (seventh place).

While playing down to the level of teams toward the bottom of the league standings is cause for concern given the approaching conference tournament, Johnston is hopeful his team can turn its fortunes around and use the loss as motivation moving forward.

“Hopefully this is a springboard to better basketball,” Johnston said.

SDSU returns to the Frost Arena floor 1 p.m. Saturday against Purdue Fort Wayne for its penultimate home game of the season.