Summit League Stories: Thoughts on the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments

 The Women:

For me, the highlight of the trip was probably watching Cinderella. The Denver women’s basketball team entered the tournament having won only seven games all season and matched up against a Fort Wayne team that boasted the league’s second and fourth leading scorers. The Pioneers matched up just fine.

Monday brought about another tough matchup for the Denver Pioneers as they squared off against IUPUI Jaguars, the no. 2 seed in the tournament. Undaunted, Denver jumped on them early before the Jaguars came back in the second half to force overtime, the only overtime game of the tournament, in which Denver cruised to the finish line.

With the victory, the Denver players raced to center court where they began jumping up and down with such joy that the casual observer might have suddenly checked to see if it was the championship game. 

Even after letting an incredible duel with USD get away from them in the final moments of the championship, Denver was still an impressive sight, not breaking down into tears or depths of depression that many other losing teams had born into the press conference, but walking in saddened by the loss and yet proud of their achievements, reminding those watching that March isn’t about the records or the stats, but the underdog.

For those cheering on the favorite, it was a rough tournament, especially for Jackrabbits’ fans who watched their team, winners of the last five tournaments, come out flat against USD that simply wanted it more than the Jacks. The Coyotes had the edge in toughness that afternoon, knocking rebounds out of the hands of SDSU players and driving to the bucket. They just wanted it more.

That competitive fire really was the guiding light through the tournament for USD who survived Western Illinois’ Ashley Luke’s performance of the tournament – 35 points and 13 rebounds – thanks to a last second three by Raeshel Contreras to conclude an incredible comeback victory. 

Because of the recent restructuring of the league and the ineligibility of Nebraska-Omaha to compete, the tournament changed its schedule to include a first-round bye for the No. 1 seed, something that, in retrospect, may have aided in the play of an SDSU team that didn’t arrive in Sioux Falls until after the conclusion of USD’s first round victory. 

I had no real arguments with the all-tournament team, as voted on the media, which consisted of Denver’s Paige Bradley, IUPUI’s DeAirra Goss, Western Illinois’ Ashley Luke and USD’s Nicole Seekamp and Polly Harrington. Stats-wise, Seekamp meant more to the Coyotes in the tournament to win the MVP award, but Harrington also proved invaluable, and likely won the award ultimately because of her importance to her team as characterized by the “win it for Polly” refrain that became a common occurrence in postgame press conferences.