College women's basketball: Jackrabbits continue to adapt following latest injury

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BROOKINGS — South Dakota State is in a great position as they head into the regular season’s final weeks. The Jackrabbits are currently 17-5 and sit atop the league with a 9-0 conference record, but their success may be a surprise considering how hard injuries have hit the team.

SDSU came into the year without key contributors Kallie Theisen and Haleigh Timmer and the Jacks took another blow when Madysen Vlastiuin suffered a season-ending injury in the final minutes of their win over North Dakota State on Feb. 1.

With the injuries piling up, SDSU faces a tough road and will need to adjust as they go into the home stretch.

“I think they’ve definitely been a major factor throughout the season,” SDSU head coach Aaron Johnston said of the injuries. “I wish there was a magic thing to tell somebody when they go through this but there isn’t.”

Johnston explained that there are two sides to a major injury — the mental side and the basketball side. While most fans will see the basketball side with adjustments to the rotation and younger players stepping up, the mental side has just as big of an impact not just on the player suffering the injury but the team as well.

“Imagine an area of your life that you work incredibly hard at, do everything right and don’t make any missteps,” Johnston explained. “You’re doing everything perfectly and that just gets taken from you for no good reason whatsoever. To have that happen is a challenge.”

For Thelsen, Timmer and Vlastuin, the injuries came at a time when all three players were taking a step forward.

Theisen was the reigning Summit League Sixth Woman of the Year and averaged 6.4 points and 6.1 rebounds last season. Theisen was one of two seniors along with Tori Nelson on the Jacks’ initial roster this season and had appeared in every game one year ago.

Timmer was also expected to have a bigger role after averaging a career-high 12.1 points per game and scoring in double figures in 18 of her final 19 games during her sophomore season.

Then there is Vlastuin, who leads the Jacks with 30.9 minutes per game and set career highs with 7.2 points per game, five rebounds per game, 1.4 assists per game and a .413 3-point percentage in 21 games (20 starts) this season.

Each injury took a different element away from the rotation, which leaves the current team — which is now down to seven scholarship players — to adjust over the final weeks.

“I think the thing we always try and do is move both of those pieces forward,” Johnston said. “One [side] is not more important than the other. You can’t just live in the human element and forget about the basketball part because they’re a season to be played and we can’t just emphasize basketball and dismiss the human side of it.”

On the basketball side, the injuries have meant several changes to the rotation. Johnston is hopeful that the Jacks will get forward Natalie Nielsen back after she has been limited to four games due to injury and Mesa Byom, who is currently eighth in the Summit League with six rebounds per game, was moved into the starting lineup in Saturday night’s win over South Dakota.

Johnston also mentioned that guards Jenna Hopp and Ellie Colbeck could also see an increase in minutes in the wake of Vlastuin’s injury but it will be a process to determine what the best plan is moving forward.

“I think it’s definitely there in front of us,” Johnston said. “We’ve got some ideas and a plan on how to make it work but it won’t be just game lineup. It will also be what we’re doing on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday when we don’t have games. How are we taking care of ourselves and how are we recovering? How are we practicing hard enough to keep playing at a high level? How are we taking time off? It’s really seven days a week. We’ve got to think really long and be thorough and thoughtful about what we’re going to do every day to make sure we can keep moving forward.”

The first step in that process will come ahead of Saturday’s game against Oral Roberts. Johnston said the absence of a Thursday game will allow his team to get extra rest through the week and should help them against a team that the Jacks defeated 96-80 back on Jan. 28 in Brookings.

The Golden Eagles come into the week with the highest-scoring offense in the Summit League at 81.4 points per game. But while Oral Roberts has a pair of top scorers in Taleyah Jones, who ranks third in the conference with 17.8 points per game and Hannah Cooper, who ranks ninth at 14 points per game, Johnston believes it will be just as important to contain its secondary scorers on Saturday afternoon.

“They have a lot of different players that can score,” Johnston said of Oral Roberts. “They have some really good players that can score a lot but…everybody on the floor just seems to shoot it and put it on the floor. They just have a variety of ways that they can attack you and score points.”

Johnston also noted the Golden Eagles create opportunities with their defense, which is averaging leads the Summit League with 19.6 takeaways per game and forced SDSU into 22 turnovers in their previous meeting.

“Their offense is good enough to win games but their defense forces turnovers and it creates easy shots as well,” Johnston said. “...It’s hard to win when you turn it over so much and we were pretty lucky in that game. So for us, we’ll have to do a better job of taking care of the ball, be a little more efficient but then also continue to slow down a good team.”

It’s another challenge for an SDSU team that has faced plenty of adversity throughout the season and will be looking to continue its momentum to stay atop of the conference.

“I think in some ways, it’s brought us closer together,” Johnston said. “Adversity can do a lot for people in their lives if you can handle it right. … Each year it’s how you respond to adversity. … We’ve just handled it in a really mature way. Our team deserves a lot of credit for staying the course and staying focused on the things that are productive and dismissing the things that aren’t productive.”