The last time the University of South Dakota women’s basketball program reached 20 wins, it wasn’t eligible for the Summit League tournament.
This time, it’s a whole different story.
Alone in first place and three weeks away from defending a league title.
“We want to stay there,” a smiling head coach Amy Williams said after her Coyotes beat Omaha 83-69 on Thursday night at the DakotaDome.
“And the only way to do that is focus on one game at a time, and try to get better.”
There has been plenty of that this season for the Coyotes (20-5, 10-2), who reached 20 wins for the first time in three years — and they’ve still got three weeks, possibly more, left in the season.
It wasn’t an overly-discussed goal for the program, as evidenced by it not being mentioned until being brought up in the press conference.
“The last two years we came up one short, so it’s nice to get there this year and still have a few games to spare,” said senior Nicole Seekamp, who credited the coaching staff.
To that end, the program won 19 games and reached the finals of the league tournament in Williams’ first season, 2012-13.
“That’s more of a credit to them, and them getting us prepared to play well,” Seekamp said.
With six players — three reserves — in double figures, the Coyotes also eclipsed 80 points Thursday in league play for the eighth time.
And once again, they got a spark from their bench.
Freshman Kate Liveringhouse scored 12 points, junior Kelly Stewart had 11 points, seven rebounds and three assists, and sophomore Bridget Arens added 10 points and six rebounds.
“Any given night somebody can go off,” Stewart said. “If you want to try to stop us, you’re going to have to stop all five people on the court.”
For the second game in a row, the Coyotes were without junior point guard Tia Hemiller (knee injury).
“If times get tough, she’s the little bulldog that takes over and gets a few stops,” Seekamp said. “She averages like seven rebounds, so we have to make up for those.”
Junior Heidi Hoff again stepped into a starting role, and she responded with five points, five rebounds and three assists.
Even short a reserve, the Coyotes still managed to out-rebound the Mavericks 40-25 and get 35 points off the bench.
“We’re still trying to figure out rotations, still trying to adjust to life out there without Tia,” Williams said. “Our kids did a really good job finding ways to contribute.”
Despite a 7-of-20 start, the Coyotes surged to 47 percent and a 44-34 lead by halftime.
Omaha got within five points at the 3:57 mark of the first half, but then trailed by double figures the entire second half.
“During that stretch, defensively we really made a commitment,” Williams said, “and talked and had a few possessions where we got stops.”
Taijhe Kelly scored 20 points off the bench for Omaha (7-17, 2-10), while Mikaela Shaw added 18 points and Madi Robson dished out eight assists.
Seekamp led USD with 16 points, while seniors Raeshel Contreras (14) and Lisa Loeffler (10) did all their scoring in the first half.
The Coyotes are now off until next Wednesday when they play at Denver, but with four regular season games left, they realize there’s still a long way to go.
“Even at this time of the year, we can still improve things,” Seekamp said.
One such area?
“Defensively, we still feel like we have a lot of work to do,” Williams said. “This time of the year, when you have one breakdown, it can really cost you.”