Opinion: Early season GPAC action already heating up

After a reasonably mild November, we finally got hit by Mother Nature this weekend, and it actually looks like December outside. However, inside the Corn Palace, it's felt a lot more like March than December in recent weeks, with both the Dakota ...

After a reasonably mild November, we finally got hit by Mother Nature this weekend, and it actually looks like December outside.

However, inside the Corn Palace, it's felt a lot more like March than December in recent weeks, with both the Dakota Wesleyan University men's and women's basketball teams starting off hot, and engaging in games that feel like late-season thrillers as opposed to typical early-season contests.

The latest and greatest from the Tigers came on Saturday, when the men pulled out a 103-93 double overtime win at Doane College in Crete, Neb. The victory kept DWU (8-2 overall) perfect in conference play at 3-0, and extended its recent winning streak to 6 games.

Saturday's game felt like there was a lot more on the line than just jockeying for position prior to Christmas. The second half and two overtime periods were exceedingly exciting, with players on both teams hitting big shots and neither team going away until the Tigers finally stepped on the gas in the second overtime and ran Doane out of their gym. Neither team led by more than four points throughout a second half that might appear in the dictionary next to "back-and-forth."

The first overtime was a classic. DWU taking an early lead, Doane erasing it in about three possessions, then getting a lead in the final minute. GPAC player of the week Colby Fitzgerald saved the Tigers' perfect conference record in the final seconds when he came off a doublescreen and buried a three to force another overtime. The shot proved to be a life-saver for DWU, and a killer for Doane.


Prior to that, it was the women who were winning in sensational fashion. The Tigers opened conference play by somehow beating Sioux Falls in double overtime. Throughout the final minutes of regulation and the two extra periods, DWU could've won or lost a number of times if a shot would've fallen here or rimmed out there, but the Tigers finally preserved their lead when Angela Noteboom stole a pair of passes in the closing seconds to thwart USF's attempts to prolong the game.

For an encore, the DWU women needed overtime to beat Dordt Wednesday. The Tigers ran out to a huge lead, only to suffer through one of their famous cold stretches to allow the Defenders to get right back in the game. The teams slugged it out from there, and again it was a combination of big buckets and big stops that allowed DWU to prevail, 80-78, in the end.

In both wins, it was as if first-year head coach Aaron Kahl handed the keys to the team to one of the Johnson sisters and let them drive the rest of the way. In Sioux Falls it was Ashley Johnson hitting three after three, and adding a huge steal-and-layup to propel the Tigers to victory.

Her sister Allison hopped in the driver's seat against Dordt and engineered another DWU win. Allison put the Tigers ahead for good in the final minute of overtime with a huge three-point play. She gave them a cushion when she drew the defense and then dished to Noteboom for an easy deuce, and she stole the last two passes to preserve the win.

Lost in the overtime shuffle is the men's upset win at No. 12 Sioux Falls to open the conference schedule. Tied in the final two minutes, DWU forward Scott Nelson worked himself free and drained a three-pointer to put the Tigers ahead. Marcus Vontz got a hand on a Cougars' pass on the other end, and after Fitzgerald missed the front end of a one-and-one, the rebound got tapped out right back into hishands. He was fouled again, and this time both shots splashed through the net for the first DWU win on Sioux Falls' home floor since 2000.

Normally, with how long the basketball season is, it seems like teams have to try to work their way in slowly, even in conference play. Not this year. Not for the Tigers. Both DWU teams have dove into GPAC play headfirst, and the result has been exceedingly enjoyable basketball played at a January-level in November and early December.

And if the first three league games are any indication, Wednesday night at the Corn Palace should be a can't-miss event. Northwestern College brings in an unbeaten women's team that features Debbie Remmerde. A few weeks ago, Remmerde scored a school-record 50 points in a 107-104 overtime win over No. 16 South Dakota Tech. That outburst put her over 3,000 points for her career.

The Northwestern men are just as good. The Red Raiders return nearly intact from last year's final four run and feature a high-flying offense that averages more than 91 points per game. They opened the season ranked second in the nation, and were the coaches preseason pick to win the GPAC.


The women start at 6 p.m. and the men follow at 8 p.m. and I don't know if I can wait another day to take my seat at the Corn Palace press table. Early on, it has appeared that both DWU teams were underrated heading into the season, and if either team can get a win against Northwestern, it would certainly make the rest of the league take notice that the Tigers are for real.

While it might take me another week or so to get used to scraping ice off my windshield, trudging through the snow and everything else that comes with the first signs of winter, I'm already fully adjusted to basketball season, and I'm hoping that the quality in Wednesday's doubleheader can keep it feeling like the start of springtime inside the Corn Palace.

What To Read Next
Get Local