BROOKINGS — South Dakota State gained sole possession of first place in the Summit League on Saturday as the Jackrabbits topped Oral Roberts 83-72 at Frost Arena.
SDSU improved to 14-11 overall and 7-3 in the Summit League with the win. The Jacks are now a half game ahead of North Dakota, who lost to Kansas City on Saturday.
The Jacks led 66-65 with 5:23 to play and outscored the Golden Eagles 17-7 the rest of the way. South Dakota State’s Charlie Easley, who had 17 points, five steals, five rebounds and five assists on Saturday, said the key to pulling away late was taking care of the ball.
“We just went on a run. [It was about] getting stops and playing fast and playing confident. We had great flow on offense. I don’t think we had a turnover in the second half and when you get shots every time, even when you miss them, if they’re good shots, it just gets you in a rhythm and we were able to get stops down the stretch,” Easley said.
SDSU fell behind 18-7 eight minutes into the game. The Jacks cut the lead to 23-20 but ORU then went on an 8-2 run to make it 31-22 with 6:20 left in the first half. SDSU responded to close out the half as the Jacks would outscore the Golden Eagles 21-6 the rest of the half and took a 43-37 lead into halftime.
Luke Appel had 17 points at halftime and finished with a season-high 25 points for SDSU. Appel said he felt like once he got it going late in the first half everyone followed suit.
“We just had a slow start again. … I knew I could be aggressive and I saw my first three that came from [Easley] fall. Then I was just getting in the lane and scoring. Everything started to feel good and the ball started moving in the second half and it was great to see,” Appel said.
SDSU head coach Eric Henderson said he thought Appel was much more aggressive on Saturday afternoon.
“We had eight turnovers in the first eight minutes and a couple of those were Luke’s. But I think he was in attack mode and was trying to get to the basket. If you’re making aggressive mistakes, we can live with some of those. …I think he was a lot more aggressive and on the arc, he’s been very confident,” Henderson said.
The Jacks would lead 49-44 two and a half minutes into the second half but the Golden Eagles scored seven straight to go up 51-49 with 15 minutes to play. SDSU responded with seven straight of its own to go up 56-51 with 12 minutes left, but an Issac McBride lay up gave ORU the lead again with 10 minutes left and the two teams traded baskets until SDSU pulled away.
3,422 people were at Frost Arena on Saturday and it felt like it was close to a full house. Henderson said he thought the crowd made a big impact throughout the game.
“I talk about the support that we get, and it’s incredible, they’re so loyal, but they probably get shortchanged a little bit. They’re pretty smart too and they know what it’s supposed to look like. The effort, the energy, the enthusiasm. We probably played the way it’s supposed to look, as close to that today as we have in a long time and I think they really enjoyed that,” Henderson said.
SDSU shot 51.7% from the field and was 10-of-20 from three. The Jacks had two other players score in double figures. Zeke Mayo had 19 points and five assists and William Kyle III had 17 points and 12 rebounds.
Henderson noted that the offense had been struggling a bit heading into Saturday’s game and he said the difference on Saturday was the ball movement.
“We had a little time to work on things, to be honest. Everyone felt that it was kind of stagnant and I thought we had a little bit more movement [today]. I thought our guys shared the ball a little better and we had more balance. I thought we dribbled less today than we have in a long time, which was important,” Henderson said.
The Golden Eagles shot 51.9% from the field and were 9-of-26 from three. They were led by McBride who had 24 points. Kareem Thompson had 14 points and Jallen Bedford had 12 points.
Easley’s five steals were one off a career high for him and he averages 2.32 steals per game, which is 16th in the country. He said his goal going into every game is to focus on the defensive side of the floor.
“I’m not saying I do a great job of tuning in every possession and trying to get a stop, but that’s what I need to do and that’s when I’m at my best. Just being defensive minded, focusing on that and then the rest of the game just comes,” Easley said.
SDSU had 30 rebounds and ORU had 28. The Golden Eagles had 15 turnovers and the Jacks had just eight, including none in the second half. SDSU was 11-of-15 at the charity stripe and ORU was 9-of-10 on free throws.
The Jacks have seven games remaining in the season before the Summit League Tournament, which is March 9-12 in Sioux Falls. Two and a half games separate SDSU from eighth place Omaha. Appel said the Jacks aren’t really focused on where they end up in the conference because everyone is so close to each other.
“With how the league is right now, every game is a dog fight. If we’re the one seed [in the conference tournament], we’re going to have to play somebody tough no matter what. All that matters are those three games in March and we have to be the best team we can be when we play those three games,” Appel said.