College Women's Basketball

South Dakota State's toughness stands out in NCAA Tournament loss to Utah

The Jackrabbits suffered a 68-54 loss to Utah on Saturday night, but their toughness left a mark on a solid season.


SPOKANE, Wash. – South Dakota State’s season came to an end as Utah used a fast start in the first and third quarters and a 276-point, seven-rebound performance from Alissa Pili to defeat the Jackrabbits 68-54 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night.

But it was the Jackrabbits' toughness through injuries and adversity that stood out as the year came to a close.

“I think back that we just had another great year,” Johnston said. “We’ll just continue to remind this group for the next several weeks and the rest of their career that they were enough this year because that was kind of the big challenge. You go through injuries and the questions come from all around whether they come from yourself or whether they come from people, ‘How are you going to do this?’ or ‘How are you going to be good enough?’ …They were absolutely enough to be another great team at SDSU and they should feel really good about that.”

The game didn’t start well for SDSU as Brooklyn Meyer picked up a pair of charging fouls. With Brooklyn Meyer in foul trouble, the Jacks struggled from the floor missing their first six shots before Jenna Hopp made a layup with 4:26 left in the first quarter.

“The two fouls didn’t help,” Johnston said of how Brooklyn Meyer’s early foul trouble stunted the offense. “We just run so much through her and then all the sudden not to have her…[We had] a couple of missed shots, a couple of turnovers but I really think those two fouls…just kind of changed things.”

With the Jacks shooting 1-for-12 in the opening quarter, Utah took advantage, taking a 20-3 lead going into the second quarter and leading 27-7 on Pili’s layup with 7:20 until halftime. 

But SDSU’s offense got going in the second quarter after Tori Nelson knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the lead down to 27-13. The 3-pointers helped the Jacks find a rhythm on the offensive end and their defense stepped up to produce a 17-0 run to end the first half and go into halftime down 27-24.

“I think in that first quarter we were on our heels and just a little nervous going into the game,” Nelson said of the run. “I think we just did a good job of settling in, especially offensively, and just be more confident with what we were doing. I think we just took it upon ourselves to find more energy, find a little extra edge and that really contributed to [the run.]”

Although the deficit was manageable going into the second half, Utah gained separation by opening the third quarter on a 9-1 run. The Utes leaned on Pili as the centerpiece of their offense and the senior’s size and strength were pivotal to help Utah take a 53-41 lead at the end of the third quarter.

The lead hovered around 12 points in the final quarter and the Jacks couldn’t pull off a final rally as Utah advanced to the second round. The loss was disappointing for SDSU but especially for Nelson, the lone active senior on the roster.

Nelson played through a knee injury suffered in the Summit League Tournament and while the injury will ultimately require surgery, Nelson played through it scoring 14 points and grabbing four rebounds in her final game as a Jackrabbit.

“Tori has been one of the consistent ones,” Johnston said. “We’ve graduated a lot of really good players the last several years. Some of our all-time greats when you look at the numbers. Tori has always been there and she’s been part of some incredibly successful teams. … It says a lot about a person and just how competitive they are and how driven they are and how willing they are to fit into what we’re asking them to do.”

Johnston also praised Nelson for spending all five years of her career with the Jackrabbits.

“There are a lot of five-year players out there right now because of what we all dealt with a couple of years ago, but there’s not a lot of five-year players that are at the same school for five years,” Johnston said. “I think that’s a really cool thing about Tori and I’m glad she’s one of our all-time greats and glad she’s an all-time winner. I wish we had a couple more wins for her but she should really reflect positively on her exceptional career on and off the court.”

Brooklyn Meyer finished with 13 points and five rebounds while Paige Meyer had 12 points and eight rebounds. Mesa Byom also scored six points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the loss.

Kennady McQueen scored 17 points with six assists for the Utes and Jenna Johnson had eight points and 10 rebounds. Matyson Wilke had seven points and Ines Viera had six points and five assists.

SDSU shot 32 percent in the game including 3-for-12 (25%) on 3-pointers. The Jacks made 19-of-29 (65%) free throws, grabbed 33 rebounds and committed 19 turnovers.

Utah shot 47 percent from the floor including 8-for-27 (29%) on 3-pointers. The Utes went 6-for-8 (75%) on free throws, grabbed 34 rebounds and committed 13 turnovers.

The loss snapped a 21-game losing streak for SDSU and left the Jacks with a final record of 27-6 but the Jacks accomplished plenty during the season including a perfect 16-0 record in conference play and a Summit League Tournament championship.

SDSU’s style of play also grabbed the attention of Utah head coach Lynne Roberts who commended their continued success after the game.

“I just have so much respect for them,” Utah head coach Lynne Roberts said. “It’s hard to win your league year-in and year-out the way that they do it. [To go] undefeated in conference and then to roll through your conference tournament is hard, so hats off to them. I think they’re a tremendous program and not just a good team this year but a great program.”

Roberts also complimented SDSU’s toughness to battle out of an early deficit in the first half.

“It doesn’t matter the score, they play the same way and I think you saw that tonight,” Roberts said. “We went up big in the first quarter and they didn’t quit. They never hung their heads and that’s a sign of a great team.”

While the Jacks made it look easy, the year had an extra layer of difficulty with injuries to Haleigh Timmer, Kallie Theisen and Madysen Vlastuin. Despite all the adversity, the team that showed up on Saturday night was the team that had battled obstacles all year and it was something that helped this team hold their heads high at the end of the year.

“I think this year’s team was everything that we needed them to be,” Johnston said. “They were phenomenal. When you look back at their record, the stats that we achieved, they’re amazing. That’s really all they need to think about right now.