SIOUX FALLS - The first ever college basketball game held at the Denny Sanford Premier Center almost gave birth to its first upset.
After two respectable losses to the University of South Dakota women this year, Fort Wayne entered the 2015 Summit League Tournament here as an eighth-seed with nothing to lose.
For the Summit's regular season and defending tournament champs USD that reality became a nuisance before they said enough was enough.
The Coyotes used a late spark by senior Nicole Seekamp and a better offensive attack in the second half to pull away from the upset-minded Mastodons for a 78-70 quarterfinal win and put them two victories away from a second straight NCAA tournament appearance.
They will play the winner of Sunday's Western Illinois-IUPUI quarterfinal contest in a Monday semifinal at noon.
“We knew it was going to be easy and at this time of year it never ever really is easy,” USD head coach Amy Williams said following her first game after being named the Summit’s Coach of the Year. “Fort Wayne is an extremely scrappy team and we knew they were going to fight for 40 minutes and they did not disappoint. It was a good for our team to come out and find a way to win in a hard fought ball game.”
“This game taught us that if we come together down the stretch we can find a way to get over the hump and win. It wasn’t particularly pretty, but we found a way to win when it mattered and that’s a good lesson for our team.”
Seekamp finished with 25 points and eight assists while Raeshel Contreras (12 points) and Kelly Stewart (11 points, 11 rebounds) came up big for the Coyotes in the win.
“At halftime everyone said (their shots) are going to fall in the second half so take the same shots we would have taken,” Contreras said. “We don’t really panic.”
USD got serious after halftime following a performance in the first 20 minutes that put Coyote fans on edge.
Using four combined three-point bombs from Contreras, Lisa Loeffler, and Kelly Stewart, the Coyotes rolled out to a 47-37 lead before 100 seconds had elapsed in the second half.
The lead grew to 13 before Fort Wayne got a second win to rally within 50-46 with 13 minutes remaining.
Both teams traded good plays as the Coyotes saw their lead fluctuate between 4-8 points for over six minutes.
Fort Wayne crept to within 60-57 at the 6:58 mark and then tied it almost a minute later on a triple by Courtney Ogle.
The junior Coyote Stewart broke the tie with a confident 15-footer with 4:46 left, but the Mastodons weren't going away as they led by two only a half-minute later.
Then the Mastodons became the pound cake and USD turned on the heat to watch their semifinal hopes rise.
Three straight baskets by Seekamp gave the USD women a determined 68-64 lead.
The woman from down under was going to make sure her team stayed on top for good.
“In my head I was like ‘I don’t want to lose this,” Seekamp said. “I want to keep playing with my teammates so I kept doing what my team needed me to do. I was able to go to the basket and my shots weren’t falling outside so I decided to drive it.
“We know that every team can play no matter where they are seeded and every time is going to keep fighting. We knew they weren’t going to let us win by 20.”
From there the Coyotes completed the formality of advancing despite it being much more difficult than they bargained for,
Yet, it was still just another game for the Coyotes in their search for another Summit title.
“Everyone is 0-0 coming into this so we are always just looking for the next game,” Contreras said.
The first five minutes of the game didn't go to script for USD as the Mastodons got after the Coyotes with a number of attacks on the rim to lead 8-6 at the first timeout.
Fort Wayne continued to attack the tin to get a number of short looks at the net while USD bombed away from the outside trying to get the new Premier Center rims broken in.
Following the second media timeout the Coyotes' offense started to warm up, but the Fort Wayne women stayed in a matching groove thanks to eight stellar points (two treys and a bold drive) by Haley Seibert to lead 20-15 at the 9:32 mark of the first half.
The underdogs may have come in with nearly three times less the number of wins the USD women had, but the Mastodons had only been outscored by 4.1 ppg this season and their ability to lead 23-15 at the 7:54 mark illustrated their competitiveness.
Despite being the tournament top seed the Coyotes continued to witness the Mastodons answer any short burst with one of their own to keep USD at bay.
A four-point outburst by Kelly Stewart got the crowd up as the Coyotes pull within 28-25 just north of the 4-minute mark.
Trailing again by seven, the Coyotes had their best run of the game with halftime approaching and took a 33-32 lead with 1:08 to go on a Margaret McCloud layin.
Fort Wayne led 34-33 at the break despite shooting 48 percent from the field compared to USD's 29 percent showing, if not for the Coyotes' 13-of-16 free throws in the first 20 minutes.
It all added to up a gut check for the last 20 minutes where the USD women found a way to answer the first of hopefully three successful challenges to the crown that still rests on their heads.
“Our shots weren’t falling in the first half, but we weren’t going to let that affect us,” Stewart said. “We know we are good shooters and can hit those shots. We came out, we knew we could play defense, and we knew our shots were going to fall.
“Generally we have been a great second half team so we had confidence in each other, we have great senior leadership, and we came out and made big plays.”