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Tigers rode defense into national semifinals

SIOUX CITY, Iowa--In a defensive battle, the Dakota Wesleyan University women's basketball team saw its season come to a close on Monday, falling in double overtime to Southeastern (Fla.), 78-75.

Dakota Wesleyan University's Kynedi Cheeseman (30) heads to the free-throw line after being fouled alongside teammates Madison Mathews (12) and Sarah Carr (40) during a game against Southeastern in the semi-finals of the NAIA Division II national tournament on Monday at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Dakota Wesleyan University's Kynedi Cheeseman (30) heads to the free-throw line after being fouled alongside teammates Madison Mathews (12) and Sarah Carr (40) during a game against Southeastern in the semi-finals of the NAIA Division II national tournament on Monday at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa. (Matt Gade / Republic)

SIOUX CITY, Iowa-In a defensive battle, the Dakota Wesleyan University women's basketball team saw its season come to a close on Monday, falling in double overtime to Southeastern (Fla.), 78-75.

DWU provided another strong defensive outing, holding the Fire to 38.2 percent shooting. However, it struggled passing around and shooting over their size.

The Tigers made 12 3-pointers, but only shot 28.6 percent from inside the arc. That said, Alexandria native Kynedi Cheeseman dropped a career-high 32 points, along with 14 rebounds and five assists.

"We just played a team that has three losses in two years-very good basketball team and very physical," DWU coach Jason Christensen said. "We just had a tough time scoring, and part of that was their height."

Trusting the process

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Before the season, Christensen called this season a process. By buying into a defensive-oriented gameplan, the Tigers earned a return trip to the national semifinals and the third 30-win season in program history.

"When we started the season, I thought we'd have a chance-just a chance-if we played well and kept improving to get back to (the national semifinals)," Christensen said. "And we did. I'm pretty proud of our group."

While DWU relied on strong defensive performances throughout the year, it did have some offensive success.

Cheeseman finished second in the Great Plains Athletic Conference in scoring (18.9 ppg) and Sarah Carr ranked fourth (17.1 ppg). In the national tournament, the Tigers relied on Cheeseman and Osthus, who scored 23.3 and 16.8 per contest, respectively.

Still, the key to earning a No. 1 seed and making another deep run came on the other end.

"Our kids have always bought in, and that's the key," Christensen said. "How fun is it rebounding and playing defense? It's not a lot of fun. And we do a lot of that in practice just because I knew we weren't going to be an offensive threat like we were last year."

Relying on tough defense

Following DWU's 97-point outburst against St. Thomas (Fla.) in the opening round, it averaged 71 points per game and shot 39 percent from the field in its next three contests. Yet, the Tigers notched a pair of double-digit wins and forced Southeastern into double overtime.

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"That's why we were in the (national semifinals) because of our defense," Christensen said. "We weren't very flashy on offense. We got here because of our defense."

The Tigers held teams to 63.8 points per game in the national tournament on 37.1 percent shooting and 19.3 percent from beyond the arc. The Fire also never scored 20 points in a single quarter as the Tigers allowed three 20-point quarters in four games.

"These kids bought into (a defensive) style, bought into playing a lot of defense, and look what happened," Christensen said. "You can play a lot of defense, and be kind of ugly on offense, and go far."

A glimpse into the future

When Osthus and Plankinton native Makaela Karst fouled out in the second overtime period, DWU turned to its two freshmen bench players-Kaylee Kirk and Sydney Halling. Kirk played the final 4:47 and Halling entered with 2:06 remaining.

"We'll look back at this sometime and say, 'It's probably a good thing that those two got on the floor at the end of this big game,' " Christensen said. "They were huge."

In a season which the Tigers stuck to a seven-man rotation, both freshmen were able to crack the rotation and play in all 37 games. Against Southeastern, Halling finished with four points, eight rebounds and two steals.

Kirk's biggest moment came with DWU trailing by two with 3.9 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, she drove to the hoop, but was met by a block from Raegan Linster. Despite the result, Christensen was pleased with the freshman's aggressiveness.

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"Kynedi was getting guarded and so was Madison (Mathews) on the other side, and she just took it in and tried to make something happen before the shot clock went out," Christensen said. "I've always told my kids, get me a shot before a turnover. We got a shot. I know we got blocked, but we got a shot."

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