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.
BY JEREMY HOECK
Am I predicting a Coyote sweep in the Summit League Tournament?
Not exactly. But keep reading.
Let’s be honest, the women’s race is basically between the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State, right? Well, not so fast. Western Illinois and IUPUI are certainly capable of stringing together three wins in a row, while no team in the league — or perhaps the nation, you could argue — has an answer for Vicky McIntyre at Oral Roberts.
On the men’s side, it’s wide open. Everyone has proven vulnerable, and keep in mind, No. 7 seed Denver pushed No. 2 seed North Dakota State to overtime both times in the regular season. And top-seeded South Dakota State just got beat by 16 points at No. 5 South Dakota last Saturday.
Either way, get ready for a wild four days at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls, starting Saturday.
OK, let’s get to the predictions.
1 USD over 8 Fort Wayne: The Coyotes are just too potent and too deep.
2 SDSU over 7 Denver: Pretty much the same story.
4 Western Illinois over 5 IUPUI: Both of these teams could make a serious run at a title, but Ashley Luke will be too much for the Jags to handle.
3 Oral Roberts over 6 North Dakota State: Vicky McIntyre could very well put up 30 points & 20 rebounds in this game for ORU.
1 USD over 4 Western Illinois: Not only would this be a rematch of last year’s memorable first round game, it would be a rematch of last week’s narrow win for the Coyotes. I still think the Coyotes have too many weapons on offense.
3 Oral Roberts over 2 SDSU: In the regular season meeting in Tulsa, the Jacks held everyone not named Vicky McIntyre to 10-of-37 shooting. For some reason, I just see the Golden Eagles making a run into the finals.
1 USD over 3 Oral Roberts: The Coyotes repeat as Summit League champs and reach the NCAA Tournament, and are later sent to Iowa City as a 14 seed.
— — — —
1 SDSU over 8 Western Illinois: The Jackrabbits everyone saw in a 16-point loss at USD on Saturday isn’t the same team they’ll see at the tournament. I don’t see this one being all that close.
5 USD over 4 Fort Wayne: The Coyotes are the hottest team in the league, having won five of their last six. Tyler Larson is a difference maker on both ends. USD is never really out of a game because of its scrappy nature.
7 Denver over 2 North Dakota State: Brett Olson is playing better of late for the Pioneers, and remember, Denver pushed the Bison to overtime in both regular season meetings.
3 Oral Roberts over 6 IUPUI: Obi Emegano is hot of late, scoring 34 and 25 points in the final two regular season games for ORU. Even without Korey Billbury, I see the Golden Eagles winning this one.
5 USD over 1 SDSU: A rematch of the regular season finale. Certainly this won’t be a 16-point win for either side, but I just don’t see the Jacks has having enough consistent offense to win. Cody Larson will likely have another monster game, but when the Coyotes start sharing the ball, they’re a tough team to beat.
7 Denver over 3 Oral Roberts: The half-court, slow-paced nature of Denver’s attack should cause problems for the Golden Eagles. And hey, this is a wide open race, so why not a No. 7 seed in the championship?
7 Denver over 5 USD: In the last meeting in Vermillion, Brett Olson was nearly unstoppable, hitting 7-of-10 three-point shots. Cam Griffin also caused problems for the Coyotes, who aren’t exactly the biggest team in the world. Ultimately, I think the Pioneers are able to grind out a close win to capture the title.