S. Dakota St. ready for 2nd NCAA tournament dance
While making the transition from NCAA Division II, South Dakota State had to wait four seasons before becoming eligible for the Division I tournament last year. Now the Jackrabbits are becoming tournament regulars.
After winning the Summit League tournament title, No. 14 seed South Dakota State (22-10) is 2-for-2 in making NCAA tournament fields. The Jackrabbits won a tournament game last year and pushed Big 12 Conference power Baylor to the wire in the second round, a performance they hope to repeat starting Sunday, when they play at third-seeded Oklahoma (23-10) in a first-round Kansas City Regional game.
``We are the underdog,'' senior forward Maria Boever said, ``but it doesn't necessarily mean we are going to lose.''
South Dakota State has a long tradition of success in women's basketball. The Jackrabbits haven't had a losing record since the 1985-86 season and won the 2003 Division II title under current coach Aaron Johnston. They reached the Division II quarterfinals in 2004 before beginning the transition to Division I, beating Kentucky, Oklahoma State and Alabama in their first season.
By their third year in Division I, they reached the Women's National Invitation Tournament in 2007, advancing to the quarterfinals. Another WNIT berth followed the next season. Last season, they routed TCU 90-55 in the first round of the NCAA tournament before losing 60-58 to Baylor on a last-second shot to finish 32-3.
This year, they upset Summit League regular-season champ Oral Roberts to reach the NCAAs.
``It would have been more encouraging had we beat Baylor, but we didn't,'' Johnston said. ``We know what it's like to come up short in this event. It's not just last year. I think in order to have the kind of confidence to do well in this tournament you have to have a certain mentality and the seniors have played in three postseason events, not NCAA, but still postseason environments.
``If we have success in this tournament it will be because of what they have done in their careers, not just over the course of one game or two games, and I think they are poised to have good games.''
Count Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale among the believers. She said the Sooners didn't have to watch much film to come away impressed with how the Jackrabbits play.
``Sometimes when schools transition from D-2 to D-1, or from one league to another, I think they come in with this attitude of, 'I'm going to shock the world.' I think there is a bravado that accompanies that that helps them,'' Coale said. ``I think they stepped in last year and said, 'We can play with the big guys' and they sure did. Now they're trying to build on that. ... I think their mindset is definitely an advantage for them.''
South Dakota State is 6-4 against Big 12 teams since moving into Division I, an indication they won't be intimidated playing a major-conference foe.
``I've never stepped on the court for a game and felt like we didn't have the ability to compete with the other team,'' junior guard Kristin Rotert said.
The Jackrabbits' success in their tournament debut is encouraging to teams like 11th-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock (26-6), which will play sixth-seeded Georgia Tech (23-9) in the other first-round game in Norman.
UALR had a 21-game winning streak snapped with a 70-68 overtime loss to Middle Tennessee State in the Sun Belt Conference tournament title game but the Trojans still received the program's first NCAA tournament berth. During that streak, the Trojans outscored their opponents by an average of 20 points per game. They are led by Division I's fourth-leading scorer, junior forward Chastity Reed, who averages 25.3 points per game.
``The women's side is getting more competitive every year,'' said UALR coach Joe Foley, who won two NAIA titles while coaching at Arkansas Tech. ``They recognize how good mid-majors can be, how much more level the playing field is getting to be. ... I don't care who we play, if you win 21 straight you have to have focus and have some dedication and I think our kids know that.''
Georgia Tech received its highest NCAA tournament seed ever. The Yellow Jackets are making their fourth straight tournament appearance under coach MaChelle Joseph. They reached the second round last season before losing to Oklahoma but have never advanced further.
``We expect it every year now,'' senior forward Brigitte Ardossi said of making the tournament. ``Each year our goal is to get further and further. This year we really put an emphasis on that and our focus has been making it past two games.''