Jackrabbit women look to dance past Purdue

Spencer Chase


Entering their fourth NCAA tournament in as many years, the Jackrabbits women’s basketball team is no longer happy to just be there.

They want to earn some wins along the way.

The 13th-seeded Jacks will get their tournament underway with an eye on advancing past the first round in their March 17 matchup with fourth-seeded host Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Head coach Aaron Johnston said that teams in past tournament appearances approached with the desire to win, but also felt content with making the tournament. He says that this team seems to have the hunger to do something more.

“I’ve always thought (this team) wanted to help move our program forward, and really for us the next way to do that is to win games in the NCAA Tournament. We keep getting there over and over again, but until you actually do something there, it’s just the same experience,” Johnston said.

For seniors Jill Young and Jennie Sunnarborg, this tournament is an opportunity to seal their own legacy as well as help cement a national reputation for the Jackrabbits.

“The last few years, we’ve gotten almost content with just getting to the tournament and not getting wins. We don’t want that happening anymore. We don’t just want to be a good team in the Summit League, we want to be a good team nationally, and this is our chance to show what we got,” Sunnarborg said.

The Jackrabbits enter this tournament as veterans, with only four players lacking previous NCAA Tournament experience. In the previous three appearances, the Jacks have advanced to the second round only once, the 32-3 campaign in the 2008-09 season. The Jacks ended up losing to Baylor, who claimed a number one seed in this year’s tournament and are seen as a serious title contender.

Make no mistake, Purdue poses a challenge.

Although Purdue is a power-conference champion and SDSU was victorious in a mid-major, the Jacks still have a certain level of familiarity with the Boilermakers. The Jacks lost a 73-40 matchup with Purdue Nov. 18 of last season, and SDSU has since seen Purdue play at the Caribbean Challenge in Cancun. Young said that it’s good to have played against a team beforehand, but Saturday will be a whole new ball game.

“We definitely know they’re a really good team. They have a couple really good shooters, good players inside, a quick point guard. Last years game isn’t really on our minds anymore,” Young said. “It was at the beginning of the year last year, and we’re a whole new team this year.”

Johnston also noted that SDSU is a big, physical team, but Purdue is “bigger and more physical”, and said that it would be critical for starting post players Sunnarborg and Leah Dietel to stay out of foul trouble. The Jacks will also have to have patience defensively due to the offensive execution of the Boilermakers. Even though he knows that his team will be going up against a very talented squad, Johnston said his team will be prepared.

“Purdue is a really typical Big Ten team. Big, physical, and athletic … Matchup wise, it’s not impossible for us to look at them and think we match up really good … It’s the kind of team that we’ve had some success against in the past,” he said.

This game will also have the unique element of having arguably two of the best players in South Dakota girls high school basketball history meeting in the NCAA Tournament. SDSU’s Young and Purdue’s Sam Ostarello both were productive players in their respective prep careers, and Ostarello was considering SDSU before ultimately deciding to continue her career at Purdue.

“This is high profile because (Ostarello) is from South Dakota and I think she had a connection to our program too before she decided to go to Purdue,” Johnston said. “There will be a lot of players from the state of South Dakota playing in West Lafayette on Saturday playing Division I basketball in the NCAA Tournament, which I think is good for South Dakota in general.”

After the Jacks had the record-setting crowd on their side in the Summit League Tournament, it is now their turn to open up the NCAA Tournament on their opponents home court for the third consecutive year. Even though there will be a noticeable difference in crowd sentiment, Ashley Eide said SDSU is approaching the game with little consideration for the spectators in the stands.

“It’s always a big environment just playing in the tournament, so wherever you go it’s going to be a good, high intensity game,” Eide said. “Either way, I’d rather play in a gym that’s full with people for the other crowd than play in an empty arena.”

In addressing the goals for what could be the final game of the illustrious careers of Young and Sunnarborg, Young keeps it relatively simple.

“Give it all we have, play a full 40 minutes, and leave it all out on the floor.”