Facing their second Big Ten opponent in a matter of four days, SDSU once again prevailed, defeating the University of Indiana Hoosiers 76-64 to advance the WNIT’s Final Four.
A season-high 3,792 fans turned out to watch Sunday’s game between the two teams. Indiana entered the contest as a program on the rise under head coach Curt Miller who led the Hoosiers to 21 wins, tying their winningest season in school history, an achievement guided by the emergence of young freshmen such as Larryn Brooks and Taylor Agler.
“We have great respect for South Dakota State,” Miller said. “… That environment, that program, the way Aaron [Johnston] coaches and the way the kids compete will make us better in the long run.”
The Jackrabbits rose to new heights with the victory, winning a program record four Division I postseason games in a single season and playing into the month of April for the first time.
“It’s pretty awesome,” said Mariah Clarin. “Not many people get this opportunity. My coach was just saying, next time we have a game, there will be eight teams playing in the nation and we’re one of them.”
The game itself swung the way of the Jackrabbits from about the middle of the first half onward, a stretch dominated by a series of runs by the Jacks to get eight or nine points ahead, followed by Hoosier runs to close the gap, only to be ended by a timely bucket from SDSU.
“We knew that in the last game they had come back on a team in just a few quick short minutes, so I think we were prepared,” Steph Paluch said. “We went into halftime feeling good about how we were playing – knocking down some shots, but we knew that we needed to keep our edge, stay intense, take it to the hoop. … I didn’t think we were ever safe out there.”
The Hoosiers closed the gap to as few as three points in the second half, but just as they had and continued to do throughout the game, the Jackrabbits had an answer as senior Hannah Strop knocked down a three to double the SDSU lead to six. Less than two minutes later, Paluch would do the same after
Indiana trimmed the lead down to four.
“I think our juniors and seniors are really kind of carrying our team right now,” Johnston said. “We’re getting good things from everybody, but if you look at the juniors and seniors, they’re playing really well.”
As was the case against Minnesota, the Jackrabbits finished off the game by knocking down their free throws, going eight for eight from the line in the final 2:01 of play to end the Hoosiers’ hopes of a comeback.
Megan Waytashek led the Jacks with 20 points, the fourth time she has scored 20 or more points in a game. Waytashek went seven for seven from the free throw line and make a trio of threes. Also hitting three threes was Paluch who scored 19 points. Rounding out the Jacks in double figures was Mariah Clarin who scored 15 to go with a team-high seven rebounds.
Clarin and Clarissa Ober each blocked three shots to help bring the team total to a season-high nine blocks, compared to their average of 2.4 blocks per game.
“I think we took some tips from Amanda Zahui [Minnesota’s center who recorded five blocks against the Jacks] last game,” Clarin said. “I think we’re just using our athletic abilities to our advantage and making good plays out of it.”
On the Minnesota sideline, Gassion and Brooks led the team in scoring, finishing with 22 and 16 points respectively.
Despite the emotional victory in front of the home crowd to advance, Johnston said the team was emotionally under control, a characteristic that has helped them all season, including when they had to overcome Indiana’s multiple attempts to rally in the game.
“They’re enjoying every part of it, but our team is just very even-keeled in a great way,” Johnston said. “They don’t get too up or too down so when things don’t go well or they feel like now they’re on top of the world, they don’t act like either. They just stay right where they need to be.”