Regardless of what happens Tuesday night in the Summit League Conference Tournament Championship game, history will be made.
Never in the history of either South Dakota State or Western Illinois' existence in Division I play did either make the NCAA Tournament. In fact, this with be the Jackrabbits' first appearance in the conference championship game and the first for the Leathernecks since their last trip in 1997.
Both SDSU and WIU have made tremendous strides during the year to get to where they are today.
Western Illinois had to survive two hard-fought games against North Dakota State on Sunday night, then again Monday night against Oral Roberts whom, before Monday's loss to the 'Necks, had suffered only one loss in conference play during the season.
South Dakota State have spent the entire season trying to prove themselves among the elite in the conference, dropping only three games in-conference. Aside from their strong showing on their home court, going 14-0 in the process, the Jacks have a marquee non-conference victory on the road at Washington, 92-73. With that big victory, Nate Wolters and Co. got their names onto the national landscape and are one win away from, once again, garnering attention from those outside of the Midwest states.
Now, let's take a look at how both teams managed to get to the conference championship game.
(4) Western Illinois 54, (1) Oral Roberts 53
In the second upset of the conference tournament, Western Illinois, like Southern Utah the night before, saw the game slipping from their hands in the closing minutes, only to surmount a great comeback and take the game, 54-53.
Oral Roberts held a 51-43 lead with just over seven minutes to play. Unfortunately, that's where the scoring stopped for the Golden Eagles. After Warren Niles (11 points, five rebounds) nailed a jumper with 7:21 to go, ORU went the rest of the game without hitting a field goal, opening the door for the defensive minded Leathernecks to work on their offensive game and rally to win.
After disappearing in the first game of the tournament, conference Player of the Year Dominic Morrison responded with 15 first-half points, finishing the game with 21 total points. Aside from Morrison, however, ORU struggled to find any offensive identity, thanks in no small part for WIU's box-in defense, drawing the Golden Eagles offense outside of the paint they love to control.
WIU's Terrell Parks (14 points, eight rebounds) was the key factor in the 'Necks victory. Not only was he their leading scorer and rebounder for the game, Parks came up with a key block down the stretch, scored the winning basket and jumped on a loose ball that resulted in a WIU possession arrow.
Ceola Clark III (11 points) was sent to the line with 7.6 seconds left for a one-and-one. Except, Clark III missed the front end, allowing ORU one last shot at winning the game. Unfortunately for ORU, they could not manage to get a shot off as the ball was knocked loose and scooped up by WIU, sealing the victory and a trip to the conference championship.
My take: Oral Roberts came out hot on offense, with most of it running through Morrison. However, their lack of motivation on the offensive end in the second half is what drew them to their demise. ORU will now move on to the Southland conference next year as part of conference realignment.
As many—if not everybody's—"sexy" pick to win the conference for almost the entire year, Oral Roberts came out weak and uninterested in both of their games, ultimately forcing them into a position they were not too familiar with throughout much of the year trailing. Once they were down, they struggled to get back up. Now, they must hope and pray that the selection committee is kind to them for their work in the regular season by giving them an at-large bid. However, that seems very unlikely.
Western Illinois star Freshman Obi Emegano didn't shine like he did against North Dakota State, but Park and Clark III picked up the slack for him to move on. Now, WIU will look to put all three key ingredients together to move on to the NCAA tournament.
(2) South Dakota State 63, (6) Southern Utah 47
Southern Utah was unable to recreate the magic they came up with Sunday night against Oakland, this time falling victim to South Dakota State for the third time this season, 63-47.
One of the key reasons why the Thunderbirds were unable to spark up another miracle was because their star play and engine, junior forward Jackson Stevenette, exited the game within the first few minutes of the game for an ankle injury.
Luckily for SUU, the rest of the team picked up the slack of Stevenette's injury for the first half of the game, pushing the Jackrabbits to their limit as SDSU only held a 28-27 half-time lead.
Out of intermission, the Jacks brought out the big guns on both the offensive and defensive end, pushing the lead to 44-30 right out of the gates.
From there, SUU gave a valiant effort to get back into the game, but came up short in the overall team output.
What was the deciding factor of the game other than Stevenette's injury?
Nate Wolters. Why not? He's done it three times this season now to SUU: dicing through the defense, dishing out assists and battling on the boards. This time, Wolters went off in the second half for 20 points, 31 total points for the game to go along with seven rebounds and six assists.
All in all, it was an all-out team effort to step up the game. Jordan Dykstra chipped in 17 timely points, both from inside the paint and outside the arc. Overall, the Jacks shot 51 percent from the field, shooting 23-45 field goals.
My take: This was a classic game for South Dakota State, playing out of their game in one half, but coming back in the second half having learned from the first half and putting on a show.
Now, this will be SDSU's chance to prove to the doubters that their early season victory over Washington was just their calling card for the season and not a fluke. While they have played extremely well all year long, losses to North Dakota and South Dakota look bad right now, but winning the conference tournament and getting to their first ever NCAA tournament is a plus.
Tuesday night's game will be televised on ESPN2 with tip-off scheduled to take place around 8 P.M. Central Time.
Look for some high quality mid-major basketball being played in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where there will be a first-time team entering the NCAA tournament and a potential threat to any higher seed they are paired against.
Everybody better bring their dancing shoes. It's going to be a good one.
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