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SDSU women’s coach speaks at Mitchell QB Club meeting

South Dakota State University head women’s basketball coach Aaron Johnston coaches during the Summit League tournament women’s semifinal basketball game against the University of South Dakota March 10 at the Sioux Falls Arena in Sioux Falls. The top-seeded Jackrabbits lost 72-58. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

For South Dakota State University coach Aaron Johnston the choice is simple.

The goal is always to make the NCAA tournament, but he sees great benefit from how his team ended the season in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

Prior to speaking to a room of approximately 60 people at a Quarterback Club meeting Wednesday evening at The Depot in Mitchell, Johnston said his team had a “memorable finish” to the 2013-14 season, despite falling short of its goal of making the NCAA field.

“After the conference tournament loss (to the University of South Dakota), it was great to have something to lift the team’s spirits, to have some wins and play in front of some great crowds,” Johnston said in an interview with The Daily Republic.

“The NCAA tournament is always the goal because there you are playing the best teams, but the WNIT is great because you are playing in a very balanced tournament. There is a chip on all of the teams’ shoulders.”

The Jackrabbits were able to host four WNIT games and won them all before falling in the semifinals to the University of Texas-El Paso on the road. SDSU defeated Butler, Creighton, Minnesota and Indiana at Frost Arena through the first four rounds of the WNIT.

“Indiana and Minnesota are probably two teams that wouldn’t come to Frost if they could choose not to,” Johnston said. “It’s great to get a guaranteed game against them at your place.”

He added the attendance for the Minnesota game was probably 3,500 people, but it felt like 10,000 with the crowd being on top of the court.

Johnston talked about the WNIT semifinal against UTEP while addressing the crowd at The Depot, noting there were over 12,000 people at that game and the opportunity to play in that atmosphere is something that not many players at any level get to experience.

“The WNIT kind of re-energized some of our fan base,” Johnston said. “It was a good reminder of what Frost can be like for women’s basketball.”

Johnston has had success in Mitchell, recruiting Kerri Young and Macy Miller from the Kernels. Young had a strong freshman season, winning the sixth woman of the year award and being named to the all-newcomer team in the Summit League.

Young said the WNIT opened up opportunities for the Jackrabbits to continue playing and go farther than they have in the past.

“We made strides this year making it farther than we ever had before to the final four,” Young said. “Being able to host all those games at Frost was special for us. Everybody wants to make it to the NCAA, but at that point, there was nothing we could do but go out and continue to win games.”

Johnston said he was excited about what he saw from Miller at the Class AA state tournament, adding she is a player that loves the spotlight.

Johnston said he can’t talk about the future recruiting of Mitchell players, but acknowledged the junior season Taylor Volesky had for the Kernels in 2013-14.

“She is certainly a very good player and had a good year for Mitchell,” Johnston said of Volesky.

Following the season, Johnston’s name was bantered about for the vacant head coaching job at Minnesota. He acknowledged the rumors, saying he had no contact with Minnesota.