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SDSU women seek 6th straight conference title

Mitchell native Kerri Young, right, holds the ball away from a defender earlier this season for the South Dakota State University women’s basketball team at Frost Arena in Brookings. (Dave Eggen/Inertia Sports)

Aaron Johnston has made the most of playing in the Summit League Championships.

The South Dakota State University women’s head basketball coach has led his team to a 15-0 record in the conference tournament in the last five years, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament each year since 2009.

Heading into the the Summit League Championships, which kicks off today at the Sioux Falls Arena, the Jackrabbits are the top seed and received a bye in the opening round. SDSU will play the winner of No. 4 University of South Dakota and No. 5 Western Illinois University in the semifinal round at noon Monday. USD (16-13, 7-7 SL) and WIU (14-15, 6-8 SL) face off at noon Sunday.

Johnston and his team are not thinking about making a sixth trip to the national tournament, instead they are taking it one game at a time.

“We’ve just got to win the next game. That’s always the approach we take,” he said. “We go into it to win that first game and take it game by game. We want to put our best basketball forward and win that next game.”

Mitchell native and SDSU freshman Kerri Young said the team knows the expectation is high from what SDSU has accomplished in the past.

“People expect us to be so good every year, but every year is different,” said Young, who earned the Summit League’s Sixth Woman of the Year award and was named to the league’s All-Newcomer list Thursday. “It’s exciting to be with a group of girls who’ve been through all of that. Coming in not having that success has made me work hard and it’s an honor to play with these girls.”

The expectation is there from SDSU’s loyal fans who travel around the country to watch the Jackrabbits. Though in this tournament, those in blue and yellow only need to to travel a short distance.

“If there’s 5,000 people down there, 4,500 of them are SDSU fans,” Johnston said of the Summit League Championships. “So it’s a home-court advantage because our fans travel and go to the games and a lot of the other women’s teams don’t get that kind of fan support. It is an advantage, but only if you play well.”

The Jackrabbits have done just that in the past five years and have strung together a 22-8 regular-season record and are 13-1 in the conference. SDSU is on a five-game win streak and finished the season winning 13 of its last 14 games — with the loss coming to Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis on the road. IUPUI is the No. 2 seed in the tournament.

“These last few games have helped us gain momentum going into the tournament,” Young said. “We’ve been working hard and it’s nice to get an extra day of practice with the bye.”

SDSU has been led by Megan Wayteshek and Steph Paluch offensively this season, averaging 11.3 and 10 points per game, respectively. Young boasts the fourth-best scoring average for the Jackrabbits with eight points per game.

“Kerri is having a great year and we’re really pleased with her development in every way,” Johnston said. “She’s continuing to be a better defensive player at this level, which takes some time. She’s understanding where she needs to score and be aggressive in our offense and has really been a great spark for us off the bench all year long.”

SDSU men hoping to defend title

The Jackrabbit men head into the tournament as the No. 3 seed, opening against No. 6 Western Illinois at 8:30 p.m. Sunday in the Sioux Falls Arena.

SDSU has won the conference tournament for two straight years and looks to knock off No. 1 North Dakota State and No. 2 Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne down the road.

SDSU comes into the tournament with an 18-11 overall record and 10-4 in conference play. Its four Summit League losses this year came at the hands of IPFW, University of Nebraska-Omaha, and twice to NDSU.

The USD men (12-17, 6-8 SL) are the fifth seed and open tournament play against No. 4 University of Denver at 6 p.m. Sunday.

Brooke Cersosimo
Brooke Cersosimo is The Daily Republic's sports editor.