Playing (and winning) in those ‘other’ tournaments

BY JEREMY HOECK

One year ago, the South Dakota State women’s basketball team lost its first game in the NCAA Tournament. And the University of South Dakota women made a run to the semifinals of another post-season tournament.

A year later, USD lost its first game in the NCAA Tournament, while the Jackrabbits made a run to the semifinals of another post-season tournament.

Coyotes Celebrate

Yes, those ‘other’ tournaments were certainly different in nature — SDSU beat two Big Ten teams in the WNIT while USD beat Utah State and Lamar in the Women’s Basketball Invitational — but what those two in-state programs did was impressive given what they had to do.

They both had to hit the reset button.

Think about what the Coyote women had to overcome in 2013. They came up three points of rival SDSU in the Summit League tournament championship game, and then had to find some motivation — and interest — to keep playing.

I’m not a college athlete, but I can’t imagine that was easy to do.

That’s like having to play a consolation game in a South Dakota high school basketball tournament.

And yet, the Coyote coaches and players consistently credited that WBI run for the program’s success this season — winning the Summit League and getting to the NCAA Tournament.

Three extra games is a big deal, particularly for USD which realized it would have some new players (Tia Hemiller, Margaret McCloud, etc.) put into big-time roles this season. So when you can play meaningful playoff-style games, even if it’s not the ‘big one,’ you’ll take that opportunity.

And that’s exactly what the SDSU women did this season.

The Jackrabbits were, though, in a unique situation in that they had already locked up at least a WNIT auto bid by winning the Summit League regular season crown. It wasn’t the goal, though, but it was still something they had on the back burner.

Ultimately, a rough performance against USD in the Summit tournament semifinals cost SDSU a potential at-large spot into the NCAA Tournament. So, for a program that had made five consecutive trips to the ‘Big Dance,’ a sudden end was hard to swallow.

That’s when the Jackrabbit players had to stop and recharge their batteries, according to Yankton native and sophomore guard Chloe Cornemann.

“We thought, ‘Why not do something great in another aspect?’” she said this week. “We’ve taken that and run with it. It’s about winning post-season games, whatever tournament it is.”

To me, that’s what makes SDSU’s run through the WNIT even more impressive.

The Jackrabbits had to WANT it.

Again, that’s like having to play a consolation game in a South Dakota high school basketball tournament, but having to dig deep and find a desire to keep rolling.

Consecutive home wins over Butler, Creighton, Minnesota and Indiana proved that yes, SDSU was motivated. A 3-point loss to UTEP in Wednesday’s semifinal game doesn’t change anything. It was still the longest post-season run in Summit League history, and it will arguably prove beneficial for the 2014-15 season.

Not only because those players coming back like Cornemann will remember the sting of losing to USD in the Summit League tournament, but they’ll remember walking off the court in El Paso after a loss.

All I know is, the Summit League race next season is bound to be extra competitive, given what USD accomplished this season (beating the Jackrabbits) and what SDSU went through.

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