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Matt Zimmer: South Dakota State's women atop the Summit League again, and rebuilding while they do it

Jan. 22—BROOKINGS — As an 11-time NCAA tournament qualifier (all since 2009), the South Dakota State women's basketball team doesn't ever really have to fully rebuild. They cycle players in and out while staying atop the Summit League and firmly in the hunt for an NCAA tournament berth every single year. It's the status to which every college basketball team in the country, men or women, Division I or otherwise, aspires.

Last year the Jackrabbits finished 29-6, going undefeated against Summit League competition and reaching the second round of the tournament.

After the season, Myah Selland and Paiton Burckhard, two of the program's greatest and longest tenured players, graduated. So did Dru Gylten, who gave the Jacks one solid season at point guard after transferring from Utah.

That would be a lot for any team with NCAA tournament aspirations to replace, but it was just the beginning.

Sharpshooter Haleigh Timmer, the team's second leading scorer last year at 12.1 points per game, suffered a season-ending injury before the season. Then so did forward Kallie Theisen, the team's leading rebounder and reigning Summit League Sixth Woman of the year. When freshman Hilary Behrens went down, too, the idea of competing for another NCAA tournament berth almost seemed secondary. Suddenly the question was worth asking — do they have enough bodies to get through the season?

Well, now we're a couple months into the regular season and guess what? The Jacks are ruling the Summit League once again.

With Saturday's 73-55 win over rival South Dakota, SDSU's record stands at 13-5 and 5-0 in conference play. They've won seven games in a row, and a handful of players are stepping seamlessly into the roles vacated by the defections and injuries.

In other words, it's back to normal for the Jackrabbit women.

"At the beginning of the year, with the adversity, we had a lot of people in bigger roles than they thought they'd have," said sophomore post Brooklyn Meyer, who has made the jump from little-used reserve to all-conference-caliber focal point. "We've responded well to that. People have stepped up and we're really finding our groove now."

Is anyone surprised? No, not really. These are the Jacks. Aaron Johnston is one of the best coaches in the country.

It's still been an impressive surge. The Jacks have always recruited talent and when great players have moved on it's been easy to just assume the role players biding their time as underclassmen would emerge as capable starters when given the chance. That's what's happened to a large degree, but the graduations of the three seniors was something Johnston could prepare for. The injuries weren't. It got to the point that Johnston had to recruit senior Tori Tollefson from the SDSU softball team and coax sophomore student Isabel Aesoph, a former Class B All-Stater at Faulkton, to join the team. Those two have both gotten into a handful of games and given the team some roster security.

But the big reason the team is winning is the development of their most inexperienced returning players.

The 6-2 Meyer has been the biggest riser, as she ranks fifth in the Summit in scoring (15.0), second in rebounding (8.4) and first in blocks (2.2) a year after averaging 5.6 points and 3.6 rebounds. Madison Mathiowetz has made a big jump in the backcourt, as the sophomore is third on the team with 10.6 points per game. Mathiowetz and Madysen Vlastuin play the most minutes on the team, and Vlastuin has given them a much-needed outside shooting presence, averaging 6.9 points and 5.2 rebounds while shooting .407 from 3-point range. Sophomore Ellie Colbeck and freshman Jenna Hopp have both played key minutes, while another important emergence has been that of 6-2 junior Mesa Byom, who teams with Meyer to give SDSU a pair of potentially dominant posts. Byom, who played just 80 minutes all last season, is averaging 6.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game.

"Most everyone is new to what we're asking them to do," said Johnston, whose team will visit Kansas City on Thursday then host Oral Roberts on Sunday afternoon. "But at this point in the season I think they finally have a comfort level and a certainty."

The key, Johnston says, is that these are all things they've known their players are capable of doing. They just haven't been in a role that required them do to those things. Now that they are, the key is not so much teaching the skills or even helping them understand when certain tasks are required. No, the trick for Johnston and staff has been slowly but steadily increasing the expectations of the players, helping them mentally handle those increased expectations, and building off the confidence that comes from meeting those expectations more and more as the season progresses.

"We're not just looking for minutes, we're looking for productive minutes," Johnston said. "We've spent a lot of time as a team talking about those exact things. How do we handle expectations? What do expectations mean? What are our standards? How are we going to compare ourselves to ourselves and not teams of the past? Can we still build on tradition but not necessarily play just for the tradition? I've really enjoyed that part of it, trying to help this team create their own identity."

Of course it helps that SDSU still has two reliable veterans in point guard Paige Meyer and senior forward Tori Nelson. Meyer, a 5-6 junior, is a scoring dynamo who can serve as go-to player in crucial situations, while Nelson is the quintessential veteran, having seen it all in a long and decorated career that makes her a calming presence whether she's on the floor or not.

Meyer averages 14.9 points on 50 percent shooting, while Nelson chips in 8.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and a team-high 48 assists.

"It kind of has a different feel," said Nelson, who enters the week with 1,296 career points, 568 rebounds, 282 assists, 109 steals and 133 blocks. "You can see the confidence in our players, whether they're knocking down shots or making plays on the defensive end. That's a testament to the work we've put in at practice, to be competitive and put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. I think that's really paying off for us."

That's how it tends to go with this program. Oral Roberts (5-1) and NDSU (4-1) are keeping pace with the Jacks so far, but this SDSU team is trending upwards, and only figures to be better in March than they are right now. Then next year they'll graduate only Nelson, while getting Timmer and Theisen back from injury alongside an incoming freshmen class that could be one of SDSU's best in recent years.

For years the women's teams outside of South Dakota have been waiting for their opening to put someone other than the Jackrabbits or Coyotes at the top of the league, and with SDSU having so much to replace, it felt like maybe this was the year.

So much for that.