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Matt Zimmer: In hard-fought loss to Jackrabbits, USD Coyote women look close to recapturing Summit League success

Mar. 11—SIOUX FALLS — No team has dominated Summit League women's basketball like South Dakota State, though for awhile there the rival USD Coyotes were coming close.

The Jackrabbits won nine conference tournament titles between 2009-2019, but starting in 2020 the Coyotes ripped off three consecutive wins in the Summit League tournament, culminating in a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2022, three years after the Jacks appeared in their first Sweet 16.

Seven times between 2013 and 2022 the Jacks and Coyotes squared off in the tournament title game, and only once since 2013 has the championship not included (and been won by) one of the South Dakota schools.

That's a rivalry.

But after USD's monumental season, coach Dawn Plitzuweit left to coach West Virginia (she's now at Minnesota). The Coyotes took a step back to rebuild while the Jackrabbits remained where they were at the top of league. The Jacks ran the table last year in conference play and won an NCAA tournament game over USC.

They came back this year to go undefeated in the league again, the first Summit League team ever to do that twice in a row. The Jacks haven't lost to a conference opponent since 2022, when USD got them once in the regular season and again in the tournament championship game.

It's only been two years, but for USD fans who had come to enjoy and expect their women's basketball team to be an equal of the team in blue and yellow, it's felt a little longer than that. USD went 14-16 last year in its first season under Kayla Karius, and while they won 20 games in the regular season this year, they were beaten rather soundly in both meetings with SDSU.

So while there was certainly some palpable excitement in seeing a resurrection of the Jacks/Yotes rivalry at the Premier Center Monday, there was little reason to expect the Coyotes to win.

The Jacks were indeed the ones to advance, turning away the Coyotes 76-63 in a game where USD stayed close for the duration but were never able to make SDSU fans truly nervous.

South Dakota State moves on to the championship game, where they'll face North Dakota State. Given the injuries the Jacks have overcome this season and the on-the-fly rebuilding coach Aaron Johnston has had to direct, the Jackrabbits are a pretty incredible story, one that can be fully celebrated if they win on Tuesday.

But there were also some signs from the Coyotes on Monday that this rivalry might be returning to its former glory sooner than later.

Yes, USD is now 0-5 against the Jacks under Karius, and no, they don't have the horses they did under Plitzuweit, but the Yotes spent much of February and March quietly showing that they're making steady and palpable progress.

From their quarterfinal win over St. Thomas to the stiff upper lip they displayed in coming up short against the Jacks, the Coyotes, perhaps for the first time since Plitzuweit and her crew moved on, showed the swagger of a team that has every intention of once again being a program that settles for nothing less than the NCAA tournament.

"That's probably the most disappointed we've been after any other matchup with (SDSU) because you feel like you're so close," Karius said. "We've seen a lot of improvement from this group. I love how we competed. I love how we battled. Our coaching staff is really proud of the players and hoping there's more basketball to play this season."

That suggests Karius is hoping for a WNIT or other postseason bid for her 21-12 team. Whether they'll be in the discussion for that is unknown, but it's understandable the Yotes would want to keep playing.

They lost to SDSU on Monday because the Jacks are just too good right now. They've won 20 games in a row. Paige and Brooklyn Meyer are playing simply superb basketball. But USD never let them put them away. They're visibly more confident than they were at any point last year or through the first half of this one.

"Earlier in the season (SDSU) would go ahead of us and we would just fall apart and they'd keep going on their run, and we wouldn't do anything in return," said USD's Carley Duffney. "Being able to stay poised when they were scoring and the crowd was loud kept us in it."

The Coyotes were more than doubled on the glass the last time they played SDSU, Karius pointed out, whereas they were just -3 on Monday. The coach also credited her team for rising from the bottom of the league in defense to the top half since the start of conference play. Those are signs of a team that's learning how to play together and starting to grasp and execute what they're being coached to do.

Make no mistake — the Jacks are going to remain the gold standard for awhile. They're 26-5 right now with half their roster on the injured list. They'll bring back virtually that entire roster next year, plus what looks like a spectacular recruiting class plus all those injured players coming back. Not to get too carried away here, but SDSU's team has the potential to be up there with the best the Summit League has ever seen in 2024-25.

But that doesn't mean USD can't compete. From Chad Lavin to Ryun Williams, Amy Williams and Plitzuweit, Coyote women's basketball has always been a winning program. If Karius is indeed on the cusp of getting them back to that level, it's good for the Summit League and yes, even good for the Jackrabbits. It's more fun when these two teams are both mid-major heavyweights, and Monday's semifinal was a subtle reminder of that.

"I think we're right there," Karius said. "I was asked about being the underdog and taking that mindset, and I actually don't like that comparison for us. I feel like we're right there. It's not a mountain we couldn't overcome. We'll take a lot of confidence away from this and be back to battle again."