Jackrabbits keep their season alive, advance to WNIT’s Elite Eight

SDSU women’s basketball continues their postseason run on the heels of their 20th straight victory in Frost Arena, defeating the University of Minnesota 70-62 to advance to the WNIT’s Elite Eight in which they will host the Indiana Hoosiers on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Frost Arena.

Minnesota’s 6-5 center, Amanda Zahui came out strong to start the game, scoring eight of the Gophers’ first 10, but SDSU countered with a strong team effort that launched a back and forth battle throughout the first half.

“She’s a great player,” said Megan Waytashek. “We started out fronting her. Then they got a few lobs on us and we went to playing behind and got some more digs and did a lot better in the second half.”

SDSU struggled shooting the ball down the stretch and finished the half shooting just 24 percent from the field and having made only three of 18 three-point attempts. Even so, they managed to go into the break trailing by only a point.

“Our defense was great,” said head coach Aaron Johnston. “It kept us in the game.”

The opening minutes of the second half ultimately decided the game as SDSU came out with fire. After missing all six first half three-point attempts and going two for nine from the field, senior Steph Paluch took the offensive, scoring eight points in the first four minutes of the half.

“I was ready to go in, but nervous at the same time, just not hitting shots I think,” Palcuh said. “Our defense was really doing well. I think we got all the shots that we wanted. I felt comfortable with every single one of them. Then I came out for the second half coaches and teammates were like, ‘hey you got it,’ so those things got me into the groove a bit. Having a short memory I guess.”

Three-pointers proved the story from then on in the second half as the Jacks used seven threes to distance themselves from the Gophers. At one point Waytashek made threes on back to back possessions, the first following an offensive rebound.

“I missed some in the first half, but coach just kept telling me to shoot with confidence,” Waytashek said. “It feels good to make some shots and everyone was making shots in the second half. That was a lot of fun.”

Down the stretch, SDSU proved strong and steady as freshman Clarissa Ober and senior Tara Heiser finished the game off going eight for eight from the free throw line in the final minute to ward off Minnesota’s attempt to rally with a trio of Rachel Banham threes.

“That’s a big part of it, knocking down free throws when you have to,” Heiser said. “All three of us [Heiser, Paluch and Waytashek] have been in that situation before.”

Clarissa Ober finished the game with a career-high nine rebounds as she battled Zahui for 24 minutes. She also scored eight points.

Zahui went on to lead all players with 26 points and 11 rebounds. She also blocked five shots. Despite being held in check for much of the game and hampered by a foot injury, Banham came out of the contest having scored 25.

Following through on Johnston’s recipe for victory, the Jackrabbits held the rest of the Gophers to just 11 points in the game.

Paluch finished with 17 points for SDSU. She also pulled down five rebounds and made a season-high six assists. Heiser also finished in double figures, tying a season-high with 14 points in the game.

“At this point I really think we’re playing for ourselves, playing for the team, playing for the seniors. We talk a lot about that,” Paluch said. “I’m probably a little bit biased, but I want to keep playing. This is it. I’m not going on to play, so just playing with these girls and continuing on with SDSU and being a Jackrabbit, that’s what our team is really focused on right now.”

Following the game, Johnston said that Gabby Boever also had a great game and is an unsung hero for SDSU.  Boever spent much of the game successfully guarding Banham. Boever finished the game with five points, five rebounds, six assists and three steals.

“When Gabby plays well we’re really good,” Johnston said. “She’s taking care of the ball. She’s defending right now. She’s finding teammates right now. She’s just doing what we want her to do, what we need her to do and she’s been exceptional.”

Despite Minnesota’s size advantage inside, the Jackrabbits outrebounded the Gophers by 10 and pulled down 19 offensive rebounds.

“We knew we had to put a body on her [Zahui] and we had to put a body on everyone and we really did a good job at crashing the boards,” Waytashek said.

Immediately following the game it was announced that SDSU would host Indiana. The Hoosiers rallied to beat Northwestern 66-65 in their matchup earlier in the day to advance. Indiana enters the game with a 21-12 record, having gone 5-11 in the Big 10. They split the season series with Minnesota and defeated SDSU opponents Fort Wayne, IUPUI and Butler.

Larryn Brooks is Indiana’s leading scorer, averaging 16.3 points per game. Otherwise, they spread out the points pretty evenly, with four players averaging between six and nine points per game. Simone Deloach is the Hosiers’ leading rebounder. The 6-3 center averages 6.2 rebounds per game.

SDSU will no doubt hope to beat its season-high crowd of 3320 for the game on Sunday. The first 500 students will be able to receive free tickets at the ticket office.

“The crowd was wonderful as always,” Johnston said. “We appreciate all the work just to make this possible. These aren’t easy events to throw together and we’ve got a lot of people working behind the scenes to make this possible for our team to even host so a big thank you to that group. We’ll be ready to go Sunday.”