Jackrabbit women fight to defend title

Landon Dierks, Sports Editor

One school reigned supreme from beginning to end in the Summit League women’s basketball standings: the University of South Dakota.

South Dakota State is the preeminent challenger to USD, but given the Coyotes’ dominance, an upset in Sioux Falls would be a significant surprise despite the Jackrabbits’ history of postseason success.

Here’s a look at the women’s tournament field.

1. South Dakota (27-2, 16-0 Summit)Trending: UP, UP, UP

In 16 Summit League games, USD outscored opponents by an average of 32.1 points per game and only played two games settled by less than 21 points: wins at Oral Roberts (four points) and at South Dakota State (10). The Coyotes’ last loss came Dec. 22 to South Carolina, the current AP No. 1, and their only other defeat came at the hands of No. 21 Missouri State. USD currently stands at No. 17 in the AP poll and is in line for an NCAA Tournament berth even with a loss in the Summit League Tournament. Now, only one question remains: Can anyone keep up with the Coyotes in Sioux Falls?

2. South Dakota State (21-9, 13-3 Summit)Trending: EVEN

SDSU still finished four games ahead of third place, but a late-season home slip up against Denver and second loss to USD raised reasonable questions as to whether the Jackrabbits have the offensive firepower to defend their Summit League title. One thing bodes well for the Jacks beyond a 2-seed and extra day of rest if they win their first-round matchup. Sioux Falls has been something of a second home for coach Aaron Johnston’s teams over the past decade-plus, as the Jacks have won nine of 11 tournament titles.

3. Denver (15-14, 9-7 Summit)Trending: UP

Over the final three weeks of the season, DU put together a six-game win streak to vault from seventh place to third. Senior forward Madison Nelson, the Summit League’s leading scorer at 19.3 points per game, recorded at least 20 points in all six wins and a double-double in five of the six. Her brilliant recent performances include a 21-point, 22-rebound game in which she played all 45 minutes in an overtime win over Omaha and a 34-point outburst against Purdue Fort Wayne on 15-for-22 shooting.

4. Oral Roberts (14-15, 9-7 Summit)Trending: UP

Though it struggled to find consistent results early in the season, ORU is peaking at the right time. The Golden Eagles have won five of their last seven entering the tournament, and one of the two losses was the closest any Summit League team came to knocking off USD. ORU will likely need strong play from the Summit’s second-leading scorer, Keni Jo Lippe (19.1 points per game in her last seven), to advance.

5. Western Illinois (15-14, 9-7 Summit)Trending: DOWN

WIU put together a 9-3 record against Summit League teams not from South Dakota, but the two top seeds were too much during four combined regular season meetings. The Fighting Leathernecks lost those four games by a combined 139 points, and none  were closer than 30 points. If WIU wants to bounce back from losing three of its final five and advance in the tournament, it’ll have to rely on the senior leadership of the league’s fourth-leading scorer, Olivia Kaufmann (16.7 points per game).

6. North Dakota State (10-18, 7-9 Summit)Trending: EVEN

In its first year under head coach Jory Collins, NDSU experienced a midseason turnaround. After losing its first four conference games, the Bison recovered to go 7-5 down the stretch, but will have to do something it did only once in conference play to make any noise in the tournament: win two games in a row. NDSU has flipped between winning and losing in each of its final eight contests and enters the first round having won its final regular season game.

7. North Dakota (15-14, 6-10 Summit)Trending: DOWN

Similar to its in-state rival, UND had a change of fortune about a quarter of the way through the conference season, except the Fighting Hawks’ was much less desirable. After winning its first three Summit League games, UND won only three of its final 13 and dropped to seventh place. The Hawks face SDSU in the first round and will look to improve on Feb. 20’s 13-point loss where they played nearly even with the Jacks through halftime.

8. Omaha (7-22, 2-14 Summit)Trending: DOWN

UNO may not have found ways to win many games, but its defense has proved capable of keeping the game close throughout the season. Of the Mavericks’ 14 conference losses, 10 came by 14 points or less (seven by single digits) as they posted the third-best scoring defense in the conference this season (68 points per game). UNO faces a mammoth challenge though, as upsetting the Coyotes after losing by 32 and 33 points in two previous meetings does not seem likely.