Finding their place

In its first year of eligibility for the NCAA tournament, the South Dakota State women's basketball team is doing everything in its power to get there.

Jacks trying for NCAA tourney berth
Ty Carlson/Inertia Sports Media South Dakota State's Kristen Rotert, a Salem native, runs into North Dakota State defenders Jill Zaruba and Jerri Penley while looking to pass the ball out from under the hoop during the first half of their game Jan. 24 in Frost Arena in Brookings. Rotert and Mitchell native Jill Young have helped lead the Jackrabbits to a 19-2 record so far this season.

In its first year of eligibility for the NCAA tournament, the South Dakota State women's basketball team is doing everything in its power to get there.

The Jackrabbits are 19-2, ranked in both national polls and are No. 28 in the Ratings Percentage Index, one of the primary tools used by the selection committee to determine who gets in and who doesn't. SDSU also has five wins over power conference teams -- wins that certainly will boost the Jackrabbits' postseason résumé in March.

But as is always the case for a mid-major team, there is significantly less margin for error down the stretch than for a team out of a major conference -- especially if it fails to earn an automatic bid by winning its conference tournament.

"There's not a lot of teams from mid-majors that get at-large bids to the NCAA tournament, so that's obviously going to be the meal ticket if we want to get there," SDSU head coach Aaron Johnston said of winning the Summit League Tournament, which, likely to the Jacks' advantage, will be played March 7-10 in Sioux Falls.

"But we also think this has been a special year, so I think regardless of what happens in the conference tournament, we have a chance to be considered, which is quite an accomplishment."


Should the Jackrabbits (No. 19 in the coaches' poll, No. 24 AP) fail to win the conference tournament, it could be a tough sell to get two teams into the NCAA tournament out of the Summit League, a conference that gets little attention on a national level. The Jackrabbits, however, have created quite a stir within the state, and after a feature story in Thursday's New York Times, are starting to draw attention nationally as well.

But SDSU also knows all the attention in the world won't help if the team doesn't keep winning.

"Our record will definitely help us, but a lot of times mid-major schools can get overlooked," said sophomore Kristin Rotert, a Salem native who is one of two Mitchell-area players that have helped the Jacks get to this point. "We've been in that boat, so we need to take advantage of every chance we have and win every game we're able to."

For SDSU, there might not be a more pivotal game than tonight's home game against Oakland (Mich.). Oakland is the only conference team to have beaten the Jackrabbits so far, and with both teams tied atop the conference at 8-1, tonight's contest will go a long way in determining seeding for the conference tournament.

But Jill Young, a Mitchell native and redshirt freshman for SDSU, knows that every game down the stretch -- not just tonight's -- will be important.

"We only have nine games left in the conference, so we have to look at each game coming up and take steps forward," Young said. "We're just looking at it one game at a time. We realize how we're playing now will affect our postseason."

Rotert and Young are part of a strong core of South Dakota talents that have helped put SDSU on the Division I map. Four of the top five scorers on the team hail from inside the state, including Rotert, who is second on the team with 10.8 points per game, and Young, who is fourth with 9.2 points per game, mostly off the bench.

Rotert is coming off a freshman season when she was named the Summit League's sixth woman of the year, set an SDSU freshman record with 58 made 3-pointers and shot 41 percent from beyond the arc. This season, her field goal percentages are down a bit -- she's shooting 35 percent overall and 32.4 percent from beyond the arc -- but her scoring has gone up nearly a point per game and Johnston said she's doing plenty of things to help the team win.


"This year, she got a little better defensively, she's rebounding the ball better for us and she's getting to the free-throw line more," Johnston said. "Last year she was more of a jump shooter, and this year she's getting herself to the free-throw line with penetration."

Rotert acknowledged that defense was a big priority for her in the offseason, and said she struggled at times in her freshman year guarding players who were bigger and faster than she was used to. But this year, she takes pride in doing some of the little things that help her team win.

"If you can't do a little bit of everything, you're not going to be out there," said Rotert, who also is second on the team with 38 assists and fourth with 3.3 rebounds per game.

While Rotert has worked to develop her game since her successful freshman year, Young has given the team a lift in her first year of action. Young is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and is even better from long range.

She's hitting 43.8 percent of her 3-pointers, which ranks her second in the league, and would put her 14th nationally if she had made only one more three this season. To qualify for the national leader board, a player must average two made threes per game, and Young has hit 39 in the 20 games she's played.

"That's one of the reasons I'm out on floor is to spot up and shoot," Young said.

But while Johnston indicated Young's 3-point shooting has been her niche so far, he said she's far more than a spot-up shooter. Young is third on the team with 36 assists and has also attempted 52 free throws, a sizeable amount for somebody who has made 39 of her 50 field goals from 3-point range.

"I think she still penetrates exceptionally well," Johnston said. "She gets to the basket and she finds a lot of shooters, but obviously her strength is her ability to shoot the ball."


Young and Rotert's continued success down the stretch could go a long way in determining whether SDSU heads to the NCAA tournament. Their combined scoring makes up more than 27 percent of the team's offense, and has helped SDSU to that 28th spot in the RPI -- the second-highest for a non-power conference team, behind only Middle Tennessee at No. 22.'s "Bracketology" currently projects SDSU as a No. 7 seed -- right on par with their spot in the RPI.

"That's still a far-off goal," Young said of a possible berth in the NCAA tournament. "It's in the back of our minds, but just realizing it's the first year in our history that we'll be eligible to play in the NCAA and conference tournaments -- it's really exciting to be a part of that."

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