SDSU honors seniors, clinches league title

The SDSU women’s basketball team celebrated Senior Day by clinching a share of the Summit League’s regular season title with their 75-53 victory over NDSU.

The news that IUPUI had fallen to Fort Wayne came so close to game time that the players did not find out until after the game. At the end of the day, however, the Jacks opened up a two game lead on the Jaguars with only a pair of games left on the schedule. 

“It’s a goal of ours,” head coach Aaron Johnston said. “We don’t go through all this just to get ready for a conference tournament. We’re trying to win a conference regular season championship.”

Before the game began, seniors Tara Heiser, Steph Paluch and Hannah Strop were honored with their parents and received a standing ovation from the home crowd of 2,225.

“It’s weird. We’ve been through a lot,” Paluch said. “We’re close friends. We like to call ourselves family. … Clapping to that school song – there’s nothing like that and there’s so much pride and support from SDSU.”

The three seniors, as well as the rest of the team, became only the second team in SDSU history to go undefeated in Frost Arena during a season. The Jacks won all 14 home games this season and currently have a 17 game home winning streak, their third longest in history, dating back to Jan. 19 of last year.

“I can’t remember our last loss [in Frost Arena],” Paluch said. “I think that was one of our goals at the beginning of the year. Up front AJ was like ‘We protect Frost.’ That’s a big part of who we are and what our program’s about, so that was a big emphasis this year.”

SDSU reached another milestone in Saturday’s victory, as they became the first team to reach a 100 wins since the Summit League received its new moniker in the 2007-08 season.

The game itself was rather tight until early in the second half.  After jumping out to a 20-10 lead, the Jacks watched as NDSU pulled themselves right back into the game. At one point, NDSU tied the game at 26 before going into the locker room down two.

“We started to miss some shots midway through the first half. We didn’t defend as tough as we needed to on the ball,” Johnston said. “… We’ve had some lulls like that. One of the things we’re trying to do is to make sure we don’t just rely on jump shots.” 

NDSU held the Jacks to just 31.3 percent shooting in the first half and outrebounded them 20-19. SDSU’s defense proved equally strong in the half as they held the Bison to 36 percent shooting and forced 11 turnovers.

Following a 29-29 tie in the opening minute of the second half, SDSU never looked back, opening up a 12-2 scoring run and improving in nearly every statistical category.

Chynna Stevens led the second half charge, scoring 13 of her career high 18 points. Stevens earned many of those points at the free throw line where she went 11 of 12. She also made her lone three-point attempt of the game. 

“Chynna’s just really coming along,” Johnston said. “She’s so efficient with what she does offensively. She gets fouled. She makes free throws. She can make threes. … She’s a really good passer. She’s just playing with a lot of confidence and looks really comfortable out there.”

Johnston went on to say that he feels comfortable with the ball in Steven’s hands and that they ran some sets for her during the game, something they don’t typically do for freshman players.

“AJ has really been on me to be more assertive, so I guess just trying to flip that switch to do that,” Stevens said about her play Saturday and progression in her freshman season.

As the half wore on, SDSU grew increasingly stronger, reaching their largest lead of 23 in the final minute. They shot 54.5 percent from the field in the half to improve their game shooting percentage to 40.7. The free throw stripe was also kind to the Jacks as they made 21 of 25 in the half.

“Part of our game is getting the ball inside and getting fouled, being aggressive, penetrating the ball but also having the balance, shooting, everything like that,” Heiser said. “ … That’s something that we’re going to have to continue to work on, build on, and hopefully carry over to the upcoming games going into the tournaments.”

While the Jacks improved, the Bison offense did not. They shot just 33.3 percent in the second half and made only one of their 10 three-point attempts. They also turned it over nine more times and watched SDSU outrebound them by five in the half.

“We knew that it was going to be a physical game coming into it, that they crash the old boards hard,” Strop said. “That was an emphasis in practice all week and I think to start the second half we went and boxed out and got the ball on offense and defense.” 

The bulk of NDSU’s offense came from Holly Johnson, Marena Whittle and Brooke LeMar who scored 17, 14 and 12 points respectively. The rest of the team combined for 10 points. 

Those numbers can be contrasted with those of the Jacks who had 44 points off the bench, a fair portion of them coming from Stevens. Other than Stevens, no other Jackrabbit finished in double figures, but a total of 12 players scored in the game.

Mariah Clarin scored nine points and hauled in nine rebounds. Tara Heiser, starting in place of Megan Waytashek who played limited minutes off the bench, scored eight points. Waytashek, Boever and Paluch all finished with six.

Two games remain on the docket for SDSU. On Thursday they will travel to Denver before finishing up the season at USD on Sunday. A win in either of these games or an IUPUI loss will secure the number one seed for SDSU in the Summit League Tournament which begins on Saturday, March 8.

 “Getting into the NCAA tournament again would mean so much for our program, but we want to go even further,” Strop said. “We want to win more games and that starts with taking care of business in these next two games and really doing what we need to do in the conference tournament.”