Nelson leads SDSU women to Summit League title game

Landon Dierks, Sports Editor

SIOUX FALLS — Thanks to a much-improved shooting effort compared to Saturday’s quarterfinal, the South Dakota State women played their way to within one game of an automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

The second-seeded Jackrabbits (23-9) shot 46% for the game — 54% in the pivotal third quarter — as they ran away with a 76-56 win over 6-seed North Dakota State (11-19) in the Summit League Basketball Championship semifinals Monday afternoon at the Denny Sanford Premier Center, booking a third matchup with in-state rival South Dakota.

“We’re really excited,” SDSU junior Tylee Irwin said. “This time of year is so exciting for every game, but I think to get to that championship is going to be a really fun experience. We’re looking forward to it.”

On top of an improved offensive output, the SDSU defense continued to play at a high level, something that must continue for the Jacks to compete in the final, according to head coach Aaron Johnston.

“We defended well for two consecutive games and I think that will be just as important tomorrow as making shots,” Johnston said. “We can’t really get into a scoring match with USD, we’ve got to be able to defend at a really high level. There will be a lot of things we’ll be able to draw on from this game that’ll give us some good mojo going into tomorrow.”

A 9-0 Jackrabbit run near the end of the first quarter proved to be the difference in the opening 20 minutes, as both teams traded small spurts on the way to a 38-30 halftime score, but the second half went firmly in the Jacks’ favor. SDSU built the lead to as many as 25 in the fourth quarter before emptying the bench.

“They gave us a lot of different looks today,” Johnston said. “I think it took us a while to get settled into what we needed to do offensively; credit to them for having that kind of plan going into it.”

All told, four Jackrabbits reached double digits in scoring, paced by freshman Tori Nelson’s game-high 21 on 9-for-12 shooting. Joining her were Tylee Irwin (18), Paiton Burckhard (14) and Tagyn Larson (10).

SDSU’s improvement from behind the 3-point line was also of note. After a 1-for-14 mark Saturday against the University of North Dakota, the Jacks hit 8 of 26 attempts Monday.

To the Bison’s credit, they took a huge step by upsetting 3-seed Denver and advancing to the semifinals. NDSU’s women’s program hadn’t won a conference tournament game since 2009. Johnston noted the opposing program’s development following the game, and NDSU head coach Jory Collins was quick to reflect on the positives of his first season in Fargo.

“I think we got better,” Collins said candidly. “It’s obvious that those two (USD and SDSU) are a notch above everybody else in the league. I don’t think you can look and not say that. We’re trying to get as close to those guys as we can, and when we get close we’ll try to make the next step and become part of that group.”

Now it’s down to the two programs that, as Collins noted, are “a notch above.”

Since becoming Division I postseason eligible in 2008-09, South Dakota State has appeared in nine conference title tilts. They’ve won all nine, making way for general truth in the Summit over the past decade: if the Jackrabbits make the conference title game, the conference crown is theirs.

The near-universal nature of that fact will be put to the test Tuesday afternoon.

SDSU will play fellow Summit League title-game mainstay South Dakota (29-2), which advanced to the title game for the seventh time out of its eight seasons of Division I postseason eligibility.

In those eight seasons, Jacks and ‘Yotes have met for the title five times. Just two seasons ago, an undefeated (in conference play) USD squad was upset by a 2-seed SDSU team, meaning there is some, albeit limited, precedent for the situation that lies before both programs.

This time, though, the odds to not seem to favor a repeat of that 2018 title game meeting.

“It’ll be a doozy,” Collins said of the top two seeds meeting for the title. “That’s two really good teams. I know USD’s got ‘em (SDSU) both times and it’s hard to beat a team three times. It’s two juggernauts going at it and I think it’ll come down a lot to perimeter shooting and how it’s officiated around the basket, but I’m not going to pick a winner.”

In two regular-season matchups, the Coyotes won by margins of 35 and 10 points, but the Jackrabbits have their focus set on this specific challenge.

“I guess that’s something we look at a little bit kind of in the back of your mind, but we don’t carry that into a championship game,” SDSU junior Tylee Irwin said. “It’s the postseason — rankings don’t necessarily matter. It’s a big time of year for a lot of teams. We’re just looking forward to the opportunity to do something special.”