BY JEREMY HOECK
One the areas that stands out most to me when thinking about the 2014-15 season for the USD women’s basketball team are the many taglines and lines of motivation.
One Team, One Dream.
‘Can you stand the rain?’ (a song introduced to the team by coach Amy Williams).
To name a few.
But now, the day after the season ended for the Coyotes in the second round of the WNIT, it’s clear: What stood out was the start-to-finish success; that “sustained success” Williams loved to talk about.
There was no up and down start to the season. There was no 0-4 start to the Summit League season. There was no need for a late-season push like previous seasons.
The Coyotes, in year three under Williams, were the top team in the conference from start to finish, all the way until the Summit League championship game when South Dakota State captured the title.
That’s what stands out to me: USD withstood the nerve-wracking moniker of “favorite.”
Sure, the Coyotes — with three all-conference players and significant depth — were the pre-season No. 2 pick behind SDSU coming into the conference season, but once league play rolled around, USD rose to the top (with SDSU, as expected, right there as well). Even back in November, you could’ve put good money down that the Jacks and Coyotes would meet for the league crown, and probably be rich today.
Truth is, you never really know how a team handles that kind of pressure.
USD had been to the previous two Summit League championship games, but suddenly (following a trip to the NCAA Tournament) there were expectations. A first-round loss in the league tournament wouldn’t cut it.
That’s what was facing the veteran team back in November. With five of the first six games of the season on the road (and later, five of the first seven league games), how would the Coyotes come out of the gates?
An 8-point loss at Kansas, followed four days later by a 14-point loss at Washington, followed 10 days later by a win at Marquette, proved that maybe USD would be a tick better than the previous season. Then came a 5-game homestand when the Coyotes proved that, if nothing else, their offense would certainly be better.
Thing is, that never really slowed down.
In reaching at least 80 points in nine of 16 regular season Summit League games, the Coyotes were ranked in the top-10 nationally most of the season — finishing with an average of 77.2 points a game. Seniors Nicole Seekamp (15.6) and Raeshel Contreras (14.9) led the way, but six others averaged at least five points.
The veteran nature of the team’s makeup led the Coyotes to also average 15.8 assists a game, which was something the players always seem to mention in post-game interviews: The team was unselfish. They certainly didn’t care who scored, as long as someone did.
Along the way, there just weren’t very many slip-ups. And when there were, the issues were similar.
In league play, a 16-point loss at Oral Roberts (USD shot 32 percent, 3-of-11 from deep, 21 turnovers), a 25-point loss at IUPUI (USD shot 33 percent, 2-of-13 from deep, 21 turnovers) and a 10-point loss at SDSU (4-of-21 from deep).
Ultimately, a cold shooting day in Sioux Falls doomed the Coyotes in the Summit League championship game. USD was 4-of-30 in a 19-point first half, and went on to lose to the Jackrabbits 72-57.
Suddenly, the season-long goal of a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament was gone. What was left to fight for?
How about the WNIT?
Players and coaches talked last week about needing some days to recover from that championship game loss and refocus on the next carrot at the end of the stick: The WNIT.
Having a home game in the first round, against Creighton, no doubt helped spark the Coyotes. They would beat the Bluejays by 10 points, but were then mysteriously sent to Northern Colorado in the second round — the reasoning was “huge travel issues.” That most likely had to do with flights coming BACK from Colorado.
The Coyotes ultimately saw their season end in Greeley, in a frustrating 1-point game in which Seekamp hit a shot with a second left that was ruled to be a two-pointer instead of a three. All accounts say the call was right, and the season was over for USD.
The final tally: 26 wins, 8 losses.
Because it’s never too early to look ahead: The losses of Seekamp and Contreras will be huge gaps for the program, as will the steady leadership of Lisa Loeffler (who I swear made 70 percent of her jumpers on the baseline this season).
And I also swear I’ve had a dozen people ask me, in some variation, ‘How are they going to be next season?’
USD will be fine. Remember, Caitlin Duffy (Colorado State transfer) and Abigail Fogg (6-foot-4 transfer) redshirted this season, and the program will bring Nebraska high school standouts Allison Arens and Jaycee Bradley into the fold. Then you’ve got Tia Hemiller, Margaret McCloud, Kelly Stewart and Heidi Hoff as seniors, and Bridget Arens and Jaylah Jackson as juniors.
Twenty-six wins will be hard to duplicate, but this isn’t a program tailored for short spurts. Momentum in recruiting, momentum with a new arena on the way, and momentum from three straight championship game appearances aren’t exactly going to allow for a step back.
BY JEREMY HOECK
Amy Williams is familiar with what her team will face this weekend.
A squad with a new leader that’s playing hot down the stretch into a post-season tournament.
That’s the situation facing Williams and her University of South Dakota women’s basketball team, as it leaves today (Saturday) for a Sunday game at Northern Colorado in the second round of the WNIT.
Much like Williams experienced during her first season at USD in 2012-13 when the Coyotes won seven of their final nine games, Northern Colorado enters Sunday’s matchup having won 11 of its last 12 games.
“When you have a new coaching staff and a lot of upperclassmen, it’s prime for them to be able to make a run down the stretch,” Williams said Friday.
“It takes a little bit of time for a team to grasp the change, and she has them peaking right now.”
The Coyotes (26-7), conversely, are hoping they can peak in the WNIT Tournament, after losing in the Summit League championship game a week ago. South Dakota was able to refocus and beat Creighton in Thursday night’s first round game at the DakotaDome.
Northern Colorado (21-12), meanwhile, in the same position Williams was three seasons ago: Gelling late.
“That first year I came to USD, we had some really good seniors who embraced me,” Williams said. “They wrapped their arms around our staff and our system.”
It was just going to take some time for things to click. Which it did, as the Coyotes got all the way to the Summit League title game, falling three points short in Williams’ debut campaign.
“Several times we had conversations that were like, ‘Just be patient, we’re getting there,’” Williams said. “Then we were able to make a deep run and get to the championship game.”
That’s now the goal for the Coyotes, albeit in a different setting.
Following the win over Creighton, USD found out later that it would be traveling for the second round, rather than staying at home in Vermillion. The decision was credited to “huge travel issues,” according to the WNIT, but Williams was more concerned about her team not seeing its season end.
“All I could think about (Thursday) night is that we’re just happy to still be playing basketball,” she said. “We’re excited to be able to survive and advance, whoever and wherever.”
Now comes the task of beating a hot team on its home court.
Northern Colorado, which was once 10-11 on the season, has won 11 of 12, with the loss coming to Montana in the Big Sky Conference championship game.
The Bears, led by first-year head coach Kamie Ethridge (who brought in a whole new staff), are guided by two players. D’shara Strange averages 16.8 points and 9.0 rebounds a game, while Stephanie Lee averages 16.8 points and 4.4 rebounds.
Northern Colorado and USD have three common opponents: The Bears won at Omaha, lost at home to South Dakota State and went 2-1 against North Dakota. The Coyotes went 4-2 against those teams.
It’s not the NCAA Tournament, but the WNIT provides USD with a tangible goal.
“We’re looking at as a tremendous opportunity,” Williams said. “Everyone would agree, this tournament has a lot of quality teams competing.
“For us to be able to participating and in a position to make a run, it’s a good thing for our program.”
Sunday’s game in Greeley, Colorado, will tip off at 6 p.m. Central. The winner between the Coyotes and Bears will face either UCLA or San Diego in the third round next week.
Since I just got an earful about not having the state boys’ basketball schedules in today’s paper, I figured I’d make up for it by making my picks for said tournaments. Here goes…
FIRST ROUND: Washington over Huron, Aberdeen over Stevens, Lincoln over Watertown, O’Gorman over Pierre
SEMIS: Washington over Aberdeen, Lincoln over O’Gorman
FINAL: Washington over Lincoln
FIRST ROUND: Roncalli over Lennox, Little Wound over Clark-Willow Lake, Winner over St. Thomas More, Dell Rapids over Mount Vernon-Plankinton
SEMIS: Roncalli over Little Wound, Dell Rapids over Winner
FINAL: Dell Rapids over Roncalli
FIRST ROUND: Faith over Hitchcock-Tulare, Wolsey-Wessington over Hanson, White River over Parker, Langford over Gregory
SEMIS: Wolsey-Wessington over Faith, Langford over White River
FINAL: Langford over Wolsey-Wessington
My “Bracket of Integrity” for the NCAA Tournament is pretty bland, with almost no first-round upsets. My Final Four is Kentucky, Wisconsin, Virginia and Iowa State, with Kentucky beating Virginia in the final
BY JEREMY HOECK
VERMILLION — Wednesday will mark eight days since the University of South Dakota women lost in the Summit League championship game.
There was understandably a period of disappointment for the regular season champion Coyotes (25-7), but players maintain that feeling eventually gave way to motivation.
A new goal quickly emerged: Make a deep run in the WNIT.
“We had a couple days to get over the Summit League, but now we have that fire back in us to do something,” junior Heidi Hoff said Tuesday after practice.
“We want to finish the season a little better.”
Awarded a first-round home game Thursday night against Creighton (17-13), the Coyotes say they have re-energized themselves for a fifth consecutive post-season appearance.
As head coach Amy Williams put it Tuesday, there are two types of teams this time of the season: Ones that sulk over not making the NCAA Tournament and ones who tackle the next challenge.
Take a guess where the Coyotes see themselves.
“You can look at this as a new challenge and embrace it,” Williams said. “That’s what we’re hoping to do.”
If there is a formula for exactly that idea, it was created a year ago by South Dakota State.
After losing to USD in the Summit League tournament, the Jackrabbits went on to win four games — all at home — in the WNIT before losing in the semifinals.
Such a possibility, that their season could be extended by as many as six games, was all the motivation the Coyotes needed to get over their championship loss last week.
“I was upset after that game, but that next day it was like, ‘OK, that’s over,’” senior Nicole Seekamp said Tuesday. “You have to focus on the next thing, and the WNIT is that next thing.
“We all think like that, and our goal is to win this.”
To that end, the Coyotes aren’t alone in the WNIT.
Seven teams in the 64-team field, including USD, were either regular season champions in their league or co-champions. The Coyotes are joined by Central Connecticut State, Colorado State, Hampton, Hawaii, Maine and Texas Southern.
“The cool thing about this tournament is that there are so many good teams that fell a little short like we did,” Hoff said. “It’s still a competitive tournament and we get to keep playing.”
Even if it means a regular season league title didn’t result in an NCAA Tournament appearance, Seekamp added.
“I think this year the WNIT is going to be even tougher,” she said.
Only one other team, Wright State (25-8), in the field boasts as many wins as USD, which earned the Summit League’s automatic berth.
If the Coyotes get past Creighton on Thursday, they’ll face the winner of Colorado State (23-7) and Northern Colorado (20-12) in the second round — which could mean a potential matchup with former USD coach Ryun Williams, now at Colorado State.
First, though, is the matter of getting past a Creighton (17-13) team that has won the last two matchups with the Coyotes.
“We have an opportunity in front of us,” Williams said. “A new chance to write a different ending for ourselves.
“And we’d sure like it to go better.”
BY JEREMY HOECK
In retrospect, Aaron Losing put together a pretty nasty schedule.
The head coach for the Crofton (Nebraska) girls’ basketball program was very open a year ago that he wanted an even tougher 2014-15 schedule for his Lady Warriors, who looked like they could be even better than the 1-loss squad that won a state title.
And so, that’s exactly what Losing did. But what he did a little differently was look outside the Nebraska borders for quality competition – partly, as he said, because he couldn’t lock in games against Class A or B schools in the Cornhusker state.
He secured a game at the Sanford Pentagon Classic in Sioux Falls (where Crofton later found out it would play Sioux Falls Washington). He then got Crofton back in the Hanson Classic in Mitchell, where the Lady Warriors again faced St. Thomas More.
Losing didn’t stop there, however. He locked in a game at West Central, located in Hartford, S.D., and also secured a road game at Woodbury Central, Iowa, a perennially solid program. The rest of Crofton’s schedule, of course, was against Nebraska competition.
The dust has officially settled, which means we can evaluate Losing’s efforts.
First, Crofton beating Sioux Falls Washington 56-44 back in December was a monumental accomplishment for the small school in northeast Nebraska. Yes, Washington had a new-look team after winning a Class AA state championship the season before, but it was still a Sioux Falls team – and as Washington coach Jamie Parish said to me at the time, he reminded his girls that Crofton’s entire high school population would fit in one of Washington’s bigger classrooms.
Over its next five games after the Washington win, Crofton continued its domination of Nebraska teams, winning by 56, 40, 70, 44 and 73 points before a trip to West Central. Make no mistake, West Central was a very good Class A team in South Dakota this season. And yet, Crofton came away from Hartford with a 43-point victory, and no doubt opened a few more eyes in this state.
Two days later, the Lady Warriors were in Mitchell for a Hanson Classic matchup with St. Thomas More, in a rematch of a Crofton win the previous season. St. Thomas More, though, actually led Crofton at halftime this year, but the Lady Warriors rallied for a 64-53 victory.
Three days later, Crofton handled Woodbury Central (Iowa) rather easily as well, claiming a 73-40 win. And six days after that, Crofton took care of Pierce, a defending Nebraska state champion, by 13 points.
But the damage had been done. Crofton had taken care of business against four quality opponents from two different states. Losing’s efforts had paid off.
And as we found out Saturday night, those were some pretty impressive South Dakota wins for Crofton.
Sioux Falls Washington won the Class AA state championship with a narrow win over Sioux Falls O’Gorman, while St. Thomas More had no trouble beating Elk Point-Jefferson for the Class A crown.
If only Crofton could’ve played Ethan. Then it would’ve swept the three South Dakota state champions.
As it stands, Crofton won all 29 games on its schedule and captured a fourth consecutive Nebraska Class C2 state championship, all the while extending its winning streak to 53 games.
Although Crofton graduates a senior class that went 105-5 during their careers, it wouldn’t surprise me if Losing again tries to secure games with South Dakota and Iowa teams. And it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the folks at the Sanford Pentagon again make a call down to Crofton to invite its girls’ basketball team to play at the Pentagon Classic.
That would be a win for both sides.