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South Dakota State basketball notebook: Twin towers lineup helping Jackrabbit women overcome injuries

Feb. 13—BROOKINGS — In the early stages of the season, South Dakota State's women's basketball team appeared to have a nice 1-2 punch in the post. After showing promise as a rookie, sophomore Brooklyn Meyer quickly emerged as a force in the middle, racking up regular double-doubles and establishing herself as a strong paint defender as well.

And in junior Mesa Byom the Jackrabbits had a stout backup, a 6-foot-2 veteran who could slide in for Meyer without much dropoff.

But then a preposterous run of bad luck with injuries (four season-enders so far) ravaged the roster, and coach Aaron Johnston had little choice but to move Byom into the starting lineup, giving the Jackrabbits the ol' Twin Towers look — essentially two centers in the game at the same time.

It's paying pretty clear dividends.

Meyer is fifth in the Summit League in scoring (15.9), second in rebounding (8.0) and first in blocked shots (2.0), while Byom has chipped in 6.9 points per game while ranking eighth in the league in rebounding (6.0) and seventh in blocks (1.0). Their two-way contributions are a major reason the injury-depleted Jacks (18-5) haven't missed a beat, entering Thursday night's home game against Kansas City with 12 wins in a row and a perfect 10-0 record in conference play.

"Mesa is just super-versatile," Johnston said. "Her length, she can rebound, block shots and she's a real good perimeter shooter. That'll be a part of her game that'll grow, and she's also a good back-to-the-basket post player. There are teams where hopefully we can create some mismatches. And Brooklyn is such a good passer on the perimeter and comfortable away from the basket. So how we can use them together is a good opportunity for our team."

It's not something the Jacks have done often but they have done it. Johnston recalled the Katie Lingle/Jennie Sunnarborg duo from the early 2010s, while a few years later Ellie Thompson and Clarissa Ober were both adept posts who started at the four and five, respectively.

The Meyer-Byom duo is working out similarly, and that's also opening the door for improved play from the Jacks backcourt. Paige Meyer (14.4 points per game) and Madison Mathiowetz (the Summit League player of the week) are playing at an elite level, while youngsters Ellie Colbeck and Jenna Hopp have shown themselves ready to contribute.

"Some of these bumps in the road, these injuries, have forced us to play different and I think it's created space for our players to show the things they're good at," Johnston said. "That's been fun. It's created some new ways for us to look at what we want to do and maybe some new opportunities we didn't see before."

Injuries not getting players down

Madysen Vlastuin was the fourth Jackrabbit to suffer a season-ending injury, joining Haleigh Timmer, Kallie Theisen and Hillary Behrens, and while SDSU has continued to adapt impressively, from adding walk-ons Isabel Aesoph and Tori Tollefson to asking more of players like Hopp and Colbeck, there's surely a limit to how much water the ship can take.

They're down to seven healthy scholarship players, and Johnston admits the injuries and adversity take a toll on the team's psyche. But they've managed to overcome that by opening the lines of communication on everything they're going through. Yes, Johnston has maybe had to give some reassuring pep talks at times, but the players have also impressed the staff with their ability to self-motivate and maintain their confidence.

"We've all kind of collectively worked at that," Johnston said. "There's been a lot of conversations on, how are we doing, how are we feeling, how are we playing? We've been trying to listen to our team a lot — how are they feeling individually and collectively. The assistants are part of it and the players are part of it."

Men hope to finish strong

While the women run away with the Summit's regular season title, the men have a half-game lead with three weeks to go, facing a road trip this week that sends them to Kansas City on Thursday and Omaha on Saturday. The Jacks are 7-3 in league play and 14-11 overall following Saturday's impressive win over Oral Roberts.

With just four games separating the first and last place teams, the conference tournament will be wide open, which has only intensified the oft-repeated mantra about the importance of finishing the regular season strong and entering the tournament with momentum.

Now that we've reached mid-February, is it close enough to March to start treating these games as the ones necessary for making that push?

"Well, I tried to start (building momentum) in October, to be honest," coach Eric Henderson said. "But yeah, our team took a great step (against ORU). If you're looking at a time to start maybe trying to play your best — not that we're not always — but things that are important, I saw some great signs (Saturday). Our connectivity, our celebrations of others' success, our compete level, getting big stops, taking care of the basketball — I thought we made some huge strides in the purpose and togetherness we play with. But at the end of the day it was one game. We need to make sure we put multiple games (like that) together."

Healthy Appel finding his stride

After basically missing all of last season due to injury, senior forward Luke Appel is back healthy and playing probably the best basketball of his career. With a season-high 25-points on Saturday against ORU, Appel is averaging 11.7 points on the season. He's shooting .496 from the floor and has become a greater threat from deep, having hit 13-of-32 (.406) from beyond the arc, helping to make him a more dynamic offensive threat. He can team with center William Kyle to give the Jacks two playmakers in the paint, or spread the floor with guards Zeke Mayo, Matt Mims and Charlie Easley.

"I think it's important for us to get him involved," Henderson said. "He really creates a lot of energy when the ball's going in the basket. He plays with enthusiasm and spirit, which is great, and just to have that other scorer and versatility and balance is huge."