WBB: Jackrabbits ground Hawks, advance to semifinals

Landon Dierks, Sports Editor

SIOUX FALLS — Though a relatively poor shooting performance stood out on the final stat sheet, Saturday afternoon was business as usual for South Dakota State University women’s basketball at the Summit League Basketball Championships.

Behind a defensive effort that forced 28 turnovers, the defending conference champion and second-seeded Jackrabbits led for all but the opening 36 seconds and never looked truly threatened in a 72-43 win over the 7-seed University of North Dakota at the Denny Sanford Premier Center.

“We rebounded really well, forced turnovers, took them out of rhythm and made their shots really difficult,” said SDSU head coach Aaron Johnston. “Our defense was phenomenal.”

The one blemish in Saturday’s win is, undoubtedly, the Jacks’ shooting numbers.

In the first half, SDSU shot just 11-for-37 (29.7%) but led 30-18 at the break as UND only managed a 20.7% mark from the field.

“Offensively we just had a hard time getting the ball to go in the net,” Johnston said. “Sometimes that happens, but I still thought we were taking good shots, were composed and getting things we wanted. We just really couldn’t break away the way we had hoped.”

A better second half improved SDSU’s percentage to a slightly better 39% (30-for-77), but UND was never able to solve the Jacks’ defense and ended the game 16-of-56 (28.6%).

“It was positive that, I think, they were all good shots,” SDSU senior Tagyn Larson said of the numerous open looks the Jacks got but didn’t convert. “No one was forcing shots out there, the ball just didn’t go into the hoop a lot tonight.”

Larson was a big reason why SDSU’s offense found a more consistent offensive rhythm in the second half, and Johnston pointed to her play as an important factor if the Jackrabbits are to take home the conference title. 

The senior forward finished with a game-high 18 points, nine of which came in the opening five minutes of the third quarter, to go along with eight rebounds.

“I thought her start to the second half was really important,” Johnston said. “She hit a 3 for us and got herself going to the basket, rebounded and defended really well, so all-in-all a really good game. … I think she’s playing at a high level and she’ll have to be a big part of what we do in this tournament.”

In each of the teams’ previous meetings this season, the Jackrabbits emerged the victor, but while the Fighting Hawks struggled to get wins down the stretch the gap between the two programs looked to have shrunk from the first contest to the second.

After getting blown out 99-64 at Frost Arena in January, UND fell by 13 just over two weeks ago in Grand Forks, but Saturday’s script didn’t follow the same pattern as either of those meetings.

“I don’t know if we have to (win games with defense), but we need to be able to,” Johnston said. “This year’s team has had to win a variety of different ways. … We’ve had to be a versatile team and find a way to win, sometimes that looks a little different every game.”

Now, the Jackrabbits, who’ve only lost twice in the conference tournament since becoming a full member of the Summit League in 2008, get a day of rest before a Monday semifinal date with the winner of Sunday’s quarterfinal contest between 3-seed Denver and 6-seed North Dakota State.

Despite a history of postseason success, Johnston says surviving to play another day is all you can hope for this time of year.

“(Winning) gives us a chance to play again, and that’s the goal,” Johnston said.