SIOUX FALLS — As Tyler Larson left the court in the waning minutes of a lop-sided loss, he embraced head coach Craig Smith.
The senior shared an extended moment with his coach, finally patting him on the head before making his way to the bench.
There was a sense of finality to the scene, albeit in a disappointing setting.
“As far as basketball and life, I’ve been through a lot, and I really look up to him a lot,” Larson said after a 78-65 loss to South Dakota State in Monday night’s Summit League Tournament semifinals in Sioux Falls.
Watching Larson and fellow senior Brandon Bos — both playing for their third USD coach — leave in such an emotional way, it came across as a kind of torch passing.
Perhaps the two main reasons the Coyotes were even in the semifinals handing the reins over to Smith, who was wrapping up year one with the program.
A first year that could have gone one of two ways: The returning players not buying into a new coaching staff’s scheme, or coming together and taking the program to new heights.
“Sometimes when you’re new to a program, some times the hardest guys to coach are the seniors,” Smith said. “They’re rooted in their ways.
“It’s hard to change the stripes of the zebra.”
Smith had come to USD with much fanfare, having spent two years with Tim Miles at Nebraska before their stints together at Colorado State.
When he was hired nearly a full year ago, Smith made clear that his expectations were high: Talk of reaching the NCAA Tournament wasn’t going to be motivation, it was going to be an expectation.
“When we first met him, we were a little skeptical,” Larson said. “After a couple weeks, we saw he’s the real deal.
“That he was going to turn this program around.”
And Smith did that in short order.
Not only did the Coyotes (17-16) exceed expectations by winning nine Summit League games after being picked No. 8 in the pre-season poll, they won a first-round game at the tournament for the first time.
“With a new coaching staff, what we accomplished this year is a great step,” said Bos, who is the only senior — with Larson and James Hunter — to spend all four years in Vermillion.
“The fact that we’re so upset by losing in the semifinals shows that we had high expectations,” Bos added. “We really thought we had a chance to go all the way this year.”
The semifinal loss shows, however, that the Coyotes are progressing, but that progress is going to come in small steps.
Despite having beaten the Jackrabbits by 16 points in their regular season meeting nine days earlier, the Coyotes were doomed by their up-and-down nature.
“We know where we’re the bar’s at,” Smith said. “We’ve tasted it now to some extent, and our guys need to be champing at the bit to get better.”
That’s exactly what SDSU was: Better.
The Jackrabbits (23-9) were better offensively — hitting 11 three-pointers — and more effective defensively, holding USD to 27 percent in the first half.
And now they’re back in the championship game after exceeding expectations of their own. South Dakota State, with nine players on the roster who had never suited up for the Jacks, was picked fourth.
“This team has really been an unbelievable gift for me this year, I really enjoyed them,” head coach Scott Nagy said. “I’ve had winning teams before that I haven’t overly enjoyed, but I’ve enjoyed this group.”
Who the Jackrabbits will face was decided in the late game Monday between North Dakota State and Oral Roberts. But it’s not going to be unfamiliar territory for SDSU: It won consecutive titles in 2012 and 2013.
“I remember the first time I went through it, I was so emotional about it, because we had been through so much,” Nagy said.
So too have the Coyotes.
Smith has a recruiting class coming in, as well as four players who redshirted this season, that should be able to keep the program on an upward trajectory.
“That’s what made Brandon and I buy in, that he’s going to do great things for this program,” Larson said.
By virtue of winning 17 games and reaching the conference semifinals, there’s also a good chance the Coyotes are not done for the season.
Whichever tournament that could be — the CBI or the CIT — isn’t really a factor right now for Smith, he said. He was too busy commending the leadership of his departing seniors.
“When you go to the office every day, or put your head on the pillow, you don’t have to worry about those guys,” Smith said.