SDSU’s upset bid falls short in final moments

Landon Dierks, Sports Editor

SIOUX FALLS — There’s no doubt. This year, it’s the University of South Dakota’s Summit League.

Second-seeded South Dakota State (23-10) led the top-seeded Coyotes (30-2) after three quarters, but couldn’t complete the upset, falling 63-58 in the Summit League Basketball Championship final Tuesday afternoon in front of 7,833 fans at the Denny Sanford Premier Center.

“It’s been a game that’s eluded us for a really long time,” said USD’s Ciara Duffy, the Summit League Player of the Year during the regular season. “Winning this tournament, none of us had ever done it, so to win our way into the NCAA Tournament and do it in a rivalry game was definitely really special.”

Heading into the game, USD was the consensus favorite despite falling short against its in-state rival in the conference title game in each of the five previous meetings. Led by Duffy, USD didn’t drop a Summit League contest all season, and not many even made the Coyotes sweat — including a 35-point thrashing of the Jackrabbits in mid-January.

SDSU proved the gap wasn’t quite as wide with a strong showing in last month’s 67-77 defeat in Brookings, but Jacks were going to need a special performance to push the Coyotes, let alone pull off an upset.

The Jackrabbits got such performances from a pair of seniors, but USD was still able to spoil SDSU’s previously unblemished record in Summit League title games. What stood at 9-0 coming into the day, now rests at 9-1.

Rylie Cascio Jensen scored 13 points on 4-for-6 shooting from behind the arc to go with eight rebounds and five assists in what very well might have been her best game wearing a Jackrabbit uniform, and Tagyn Larson added a game-high 16 points along with four rebounds and three assists.

“All three (Cascio Jensen, Larson and Megan Bultsma) of them are just warriors,” said SDSU head coach Aaron Johnston with emotion creeping into his normally steady tone. “It means a lot to them, to our program, to be in this tournament. We don’t take for granted that we’re just going to advance and always play well, because it doesn’t happen when you look around. It’s a lot harder to play 10 tournament championships that maybe people would think, and you do that because of seniors — people get toward the end of their career and realize this is it.”

Behind Cascio Jensen and Larson, the Jacks held a 32-27 advantage at the midway mark, and that lead was almost extended when a Tori Nelson half-court heave circled the rim and fell out as time expired.

But what ultimately cost SDSU was a considerable disparity in the number of full possessions and second-chance points compared to its rival.

“Second chance points and the free-throw line are the two things that were the difference in the game,” Johnston said. “… Had we rebounded better, I think that would have changed the game for sure.”

The Coyotes had six fewer turnovers, grabbed 11 more offensive rebounds and took more shots — 12 from the field, 13 from the free-throw line.

Eventually, those statistics were too much to overcome, as the game’s defining stretch came to start the final quarter. SDSU had a disastrous opening sequence that went: turnover, missed layup, shot clock violation, turnover. This allowed USD to reclaim a lead with eight minutes to go — one it never relinquished.

“I give a lot of credit to South Dakota State,” USD head coach Dawn Plitzuweit said. “They hit a lot of shots early in the game and it was tough. All we kept thinking is that we hoped at some time we could slow them down. … The good news for us is that we felt we were at least in striking distance.”

Hannah Sjerven was named MVP of the tournament, posting averages of 14.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks across three games. Her 6-foot-3 frame presented a challenge on both ends of the floor all afternoon.

“My team does a really good job of holding me accountable, ” Sjerven said. “Even in this game, Chloe Lamb pulled me aside at halftime to say, ‘it’s time to toughen up.’ She was right.”

Five Coyotes scored in double digits, paced by Sjerven’s 15 points and eight rebounds, but SDSU held the Coyotes to 33.9% shooting from the field and limited Duffy to 2-for-10 shooting, including zero field goal attempts in the second half. 

For the Jacks, Tylee Irwin joined Larson and Cascio Jensen in double figures with 11 points as SDSU posted a 46.8% shooting mark and led for nearly 15 minutes of game time.

It just simply wasn’t enough.

“From our perspective, I thought we played really well — well enough to win the game — just didn’t make enough plays to win the game,” Johnston said. “… Always hard to express a really good thought here (after a tough loss); [I’m] disappointed in the outcome, but certainly not disappointed in our group.”

What provides for at least some consolation is the Jackrabbits’ season is likely not over. A bid to the Women’s National Invitational Tournament seems like a likely alternative to playing in the NCAA Tournament, and the players seem prepared to embrace any opportunity they can to keep playing deep into March.

“I think we saw a lot of good things in our team, not only today, but throughout the whole tournament,” Irwin said. “Ultimately the goal is to have a good postseason run. It hurts a lot right now, but come Thursday we’re going to get back to work and hopefully have the postseason run that we want.”