VERMILLION — On the one hand, the South Dakota women’s basketball program is headed to its third consecutive NCAA Tournament.
Yet, on the other hand, there was still a sense of ‘finally’ on Monday.
Finally, the Coyotes got have an actual ‘Selection Show’ celebration with their fans.
Two years ago, the NCAA Tournament bracket was leaked before the ESPN-hosted Selection Show and the Coyotes celebrated their at-large selection privately. And last year, of course, there was no Selection Show with the tournament being ultimately canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
With that recent history in mind, USD was particularly excited to see its name showcased to a national audience on Monday evening.
“It was definitely exciting knowing we got a true selection Monday,” senior Hannah Sjerven said in a post-show media session.
“And that with COVID protocols, we still got to have fans.”
By virtue of their second consecutive Summit League tournament championship, the Coyotes (19-5) already knew they were in the NCAA field, it was just a matter of opponent. South Dakota, with a No. 11 seed, will open against Oregon next Monday at 9 p.m. in San Antonio, Texas.
Still, their celebration with a group of fans at the Sanford Coyote Sports Center was particularly sweet for the Coyote players.
According to senior Liv Korngable, the players even joked about it before the show began — “It’s actually going to be a surprise this time,” she joked.
In some ways, at least.
“To be able to see your name pop up, even though you know it’s going to happen; even though you expect it to happen, it’s still exciting to see it,” head coach Dawn Plitzuweit said.
This year marks the fourth time overall and third year in a row that USD has reached the NCAA Tournament, and according to players, it’s a testament to how the program has progressed.
“It says a lot about the individuals on our team, our coaching staff and everyone we have behind us,” said senior Monica Arens, who hasn’t played this season due to a knee injury.
“It’s an honor to be able to be here for a third year in a row. It says where this program is going and what we’re all about.”
Even making one appearance is a dream come true, according to senior Claudia Kunzer.
Competing in the NCAA Tournament is something she said she dreamed of when she was young.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing college basketball, for sure, but watching that selection show you’re younger, it’s like, ‘Wow, I want to be one of those teams. I want to go to the big dance.’
This year’s experience is particularly meaningful for the Coyotes, Kunzer added.
“We’ve done it before, and I know we made it last year, but this year is different,” she said. “With being a senior, and just the team we are this year and the adversity we’ve had to face, it just brings it all together.”
South Dakota began its season with consecutive losses against ranked opponents South Carolina and Gonzaga, both of which are in the NCAA Tournament field.
The Coyotes later beat Bradley (another NCAA Tournament entrant), then suffered another loss to Oklahoma, and then were later swept in a two-game weekend series at South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits were upset in the first round of the Summit League Tournament, which opened the door for the Coyotes to take care of business and capture their second straight conference tournament title.
South Dakota State, though, still earned an at-large selection into the NCAA Tournament. The ninth-seeded Jackrabbits will play Syracuse in the first round Sunday at 4:30 p.m.
It will mark the third time that the Summit League will be represented by two teams in the NCAA Tournament, and second time that both USD and SDSU will compete in the same event.
That says a lot for the state, according to USD senior Chloe Lamb, who hails from Onida.
“People from South Dakota know that basketball is a pretty big deal,” she said.
“It’s a big deal and it’s growing,” she added. “It has been a big deal for a while, and it continues to grow.”
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