BY JEREMY HOECK
Never one to shy away from a boxing reference, Jason Christensen equates his program’s latest challenge to the movie ‘Rocky IV.’
“You know, in Rocky IV, he did beat the Russian,” the Dakota Wesleyan women’s basketball coach joked Wednesday, as he watched game film of his next opponent.
That next opponent?
The University of South Dakota.
It marks a unique opportunity – and quite the challenge – for DWU, which will count tomorrow night’s 7 p.m. game at the DakotaDome as an exhibition. USD, meanwhile, will mark it as a counter.
The appearance of a Division I game on the schedule is nothing new for Dakota Wesleyan. Three seasons ago, Christensen’s program played an exhibition at the University of Wyoming, and will return to Laramie next season.
Getting USD on the schedule, though, came down to timing; being in the right place at the right time.
During a state high school basketball tournament in Brookings two years ago – from what Christensen remembered – the DWU coach ran into USD assistant coach Chuck Love (who handles the scheduling duties) at a restaurant. The conversation eventually led to a verbal agreement.
“It was neat that Amy let us do this,” Christensen said, referring to USD head coach Amy Williams.
In most situations like this, when a high-major team brings in a lower-level opponent for a game, connections and relationships play a key role.
In terms of the USD and DWU connections, one in particular stands out: USD’s new Director of Basketball Operations, Amanda Hart, is a former player for and assistant coach under Christensen.
“It’s kind of special with Amanda there,” Christensen said. “I’m looking forward to that.”
Beyond that, the number of South Dakota and area players on both rosters would catch attention.
Dakota Wesleyan has 12 South Dakota natives and three Minnesota natives on its roster, while USD boasts five South Dakota products and four from neighboring Nebraska.
“We’ve got a lot of local kids, and Amy’s gotten some kids from this area, so that’s what makes this neat, I think,” Christensen said. “You’ll have a lot of area kids that will get the chance to play each other.”
While USD (6-4) is looking to rebound from a home loss to Washington last Saturday, Dakota Wesleyan (11-1) is playing like a team with eyes on the NAIA National Tournament.
Ranked No. 12 in the latest NAIA coaches poll, DWU comes in on an eight-game win streak (an exhibition loss to D-II Northern State doesn’t count). At 5-1 in the Great Plains Athletic Conference, the Tigers will enter Vermillion ranked second in the NAIA in assists per game (20.8) and sixth in scoring (82.7).
Perhaps the biggest reason for DWU’s surge this season? The play of its post players.
The top four scorers are all 6-footers: Kristin Sabers (17.5 ppg, seventh nationally with 38 three-pointers), Erica Herrold (15.1 ppg), Ashley Bray (10.9 ppg) and Amber Bray (10.7 ppg) – the Bray sisters are twins from Minnesota.
Yes, Dakota Wesleyan has some size, but the prospect of going up against the size and speed of USD is a whole other task, Christensen said.
“That’s what’s going to challenge us the most,” he said. “Now we’ll be playing a team that’s more physical than us.
“We’ll have to shoot it well, we’ll have to keep them out of the pain, but I think our kids are looking forward to it.”
A fast start to the season has helped erase the memories of last season’s 14-17 record (7-13 in the GPAC), Christensen said.
“I thought we could be pretty good, but we’ve had to have some things go our way,” he said.
Although tomorrow night’s game in Vermillion won’t count either way toward DWU’s record, it’s a game the Tigers are still playing to win.
“We’re not going to change anything we do, we’ll just see if our style can compete at that level,” Christensen said.