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Stars meet the moment for Jackrabbit men in Summit title surge

Mar. 13—SIOUX FALLS — With the victory secured in the final seconds, South Dakota State's Zeke Mayo lifted his hands high in the air, basking in the moment.

Across the court, Luke Appel pumped up the crowd, and then moments after the final horn of the Jackrabbits' 76-68 win over Denver in the Summit League tournament championship, wiped away tears from his eyes with a towel over his head.

The tournament's MVP, William Kyle III, ran into the stands and hugged his father, sharing a special moment caught by the national TV cameras.

All three were key for the Jackrabbits in the tournament run, a late season push in which SDSU has won eight games in a row. A conference title didn't look like a sure thing when SDSU started the season 3-7 against Division I opponents, losing close games.

"Losing it took a toll on us ... and to be here in this moment, I knew I was going to get emotional, just thinking about this championship," Mayo said after the game.

Appel, Kyle and Mayo were selected to the all-tournament team. In three Summit tournament wins in 2024, Kyle had an average of 13 points and eight rebounds but dominated the tournament at the rim with 11 dunks, including five in Tuesday's title win. Appel was out last season with a foot injury and led the Jacks in scoring this time around at 14 points per game.

"I wouldn't say it's just us three," Appel said. "Everyone made plays but we just so happened to score the most points tonight. ... Everyone is bought in and everyone is playing for each other."

Kyle and Mayo, in particular, played well in the Summit tournament, especially compared to last season's semifinal exit as the No. 2 seed. Mayo said he didn't want to think about avenging his past performances but rather knew he had the confidence to make plays, especially with his teammates. Mayo shot 47.1% from 3-point range in the tournament and averaged 14 points per game, and Mayo became the fourth consecutive Summit League regular-season MVP to power his team to the conference tournament title.

"I just wanted to facilitate and score when the opportunity presented itself. Last year, I felt like I was just doing too much, so I knew I just had to let the game come to me." Mayo said. "We left a lot on the court last year in the semifinals. I'm blessed to be on this team and this is just a great feeling to play like we did in this tournament."

"We were all a little disappointed with how last year went as a team," SDSU coach Eric Henderson added. "We used it as motivation and those two guys have a lot of pride too. They were excited to give it another go."

Between Appel, Mayo and Kyle, plus senior do-it-all stalwart Charlie Easley, those four players were 10-for-12 in terms of scoring in double figures in the tournament, all averaging 10 or more points. With SDSU's biggest and best players performing well, it was hard for opponents to find something to limit or take away.

"Their ball screens hurt us, Kyle rolling to the rim, Appel and Kyle both backing guys down. The physicality really jumped out at me," Denver coach Jeff Wulburn said. "We just weren't as tough or physical as we needed to be. They were the aggressor."

With the NCAA tournament looming, the Jackrabbits, now 22-12, are playing their best basketball of the season and with confidence in each other.

"We're putting together our best plan each week and the coaches are setting us up for success. It feels good to be at the top of the league again and we're excited to get to the Big Dance," Mayo said.