It's Monday. After finally being back to Vermillion after an exciting afternoon just two hours north in Brookings, SD, but I can't say that I'm back from cloud nine. Yesterday, I had the privilege of playing alongside my best friends in an environment that has made it difficult on opponents for many years -- Frost Arena.
It's the home of the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, and if you're a University of South Dakota Coyote, your presence isn't welcomed.
Being from Wisconsin, the USD vs. SDSU rivalry was something I was unfamiliar with until I became a Coyote, but it didn't take much time living in South Dakota to see what it was all about. During my freshman year, I was fortunate enough to learn early from greats like Amber Hegge and Annie Roche about the true meaning and privilege of being a Coyote, and after the win yesterday, I was thinking of USD alumni like those two.
There's no doubt that there is always hype surrounding this game, whether we like it or not. After all, the game yesterday was the most important game on our schedule. Why's that? Simply because it was the next game on our schedule. Rivalry or not, we had to treat it as a regular game -- and we did.
We headed into Brookings with a mindset of controlling the things we could control, specifically defense. That area of the game has been a bit of a struggle for our team throughout this season, and we were really looking to take that next step in improving on that end of the court. We made a special effort to communicate loud, early and specific. We also locked into player tendencies.
And you know what? Defense won it for us.
But the most rewarding part, from my point of view, was watching the team work together on defense. It's more than just guarding the ball. It's TEAM defense. Every possession, I could hear everyone talking. I could see my teammates helping each other and recovering back quickly to the right spot. Top to bottom, everyone that checked into the game for the Coyotes was absolutely WORKING on the defensive end, and it was fun to be a part of that.
However, before attributing the win to defense, I cannot forget to mention another major keyârebounding.
It's the game within the game, as Coach (Amy) Williams puts it. SDSU is a fantastic rebounding team, and they had been outrebounding their opponents all season long. Not to mention, they came into this game averaging just over 13 offensive boards per game.
They crash hard, let me tell you. We knew that whoever won the rebounding battle would most likely come out victorious. It took a special effort to not only crash the offensive boards hard, but to make sure we found a body on every shot that State took. That was no small task, but with a gritty mindset, we edged the Jacks 38-35 on the boards, holding them to just seven offensive rebounds.
Even with stepping up our defense and rebounding, this game was still a typical rivalry match-up. It was truly back and forth, with six lead changes taking place. We started off strong from the start, getting ourselves up 5-0 after the jump. However, the Jacks went on a slight run, and we were all locked up at 15 points apiece by the end of the first quarter.
We started the second quarter strong, gaining and holding the lead for virtually the first five minutes. However, SDSU answered back, having a run of their own to end the half. Heading into the locker room, we were down 32-25 after a last-second jumper by the Jacks to finish the quarter.
Nobody in that visiting locker room was phased at the half. After all, our shots weren't falling, and we were still only down by seven points. The half time message by Coach Williams paid particular attention to the "controllable" aspectsâdefense and rebounding, of course. If our shots weren't going to fall, they weren't going to fall. We simply had to lock in on the other end.
State was up by as much as nine points in the beginning of the third quarter, but we continued to lock in possession by possession and chip away at their lead. Though we never gained the lead back in that quarter, we found ourselves down by just three points, 40-37, heading into the final ten minutes.
As expected, the fourth quarter was a grind. In a game like this, the last ten minutes are truly a test of who wants it more. We battled and battled, but what it really came down to was players made plays.
After a huge defensive stop with 40 seconds left in the game, Coach called a time-out after we crossed half court. SDSU zoned us for the possession, but we put the ball in the hands of our outstanding Aussie Assassin, Nicole Seekamp.
After a defender went under Bridget Arens' ball screen (if you're not familiar with Bridget's screens, they're rock-solid), Seekamp read it perfectly and popped back to drain a three, putting us up 61-58 (yes there is ice in her veins, and it was there even before the freezing temperatures yesterday). Were we all going nuts at this point? Yes, but the game still wasn't over.
State called a timeout, advancing the ball to halfcourt, and drew up a play. We locked in and defended the three-point line, making them shoot a contested three that rimmed out. Margaret McCloud came down with the rebound, passed it to Seekamp, and SDSU had to foul. Fittingly, Seekamp, sank two free throws to seal the deal. State inbounded with under two seconds left; the buzzer went off, game over.
We did something yesterday that hadn't been done in 26 years, and it truly was a team effort. Are we going to enjoy this huge accomplishment? Yes. However, come Tuesday, it's back to business. There is still a lot of season left, and although we took an enormous step as a team yesterday, we're not done.
It's always a great day to be a Coyote, but yesterday was an extra special day to be a part of USD.
Editor's note: Click here to see South Dakota's amazing celebration in the locker room.