Don't be fooled by mid-major label: Drake, South Dakota are elite teams

Monica Arens and South Dakota beat Drake in overtime on Wednesday in a game between two teams that nobody should want to play come March. Madisen Martinez/USD

VERMILLION, S.D. -- When an arena's worth of people held their collective breath as Monica Arens' shot arced through the air in the final second of regulation, it didn't much matter that this wasn't Knoxville or Waco but a town of about 10,000 people on the South Dakota prairie.

When the ball slid through the net just as the final buzzer pierced that momentary silence, it didn't matter what conference either team represented. It only mattered that a memorable comeback was complete and a great basketball game would go to overtime.

"This team pulled through in a way that was incredible to be a part of," South Dakota's Ciara Duffy said after her team overcame a 17-point deficit to beat Drake 102-94 in overtime.

Wednesday's game between the Coyotes and Bulldogs was women's college basketball at peak entertainment. And there wasn't a glass slipper to be found. Just two teams that are better than most people realize and that nobody should want to play come March.

But Wednesday's game also will likely only serve to keep both teams out of the AP Top 25, the Coyotes perhaps swapping places with the Bulldogs near the top of the list of those teams "also receiving votes." Beating another mid-major doesn't buy much prestige with voters or the NCAA tournament selection committee. It's their loss.

"I don't know about other people and their perceptions, but I will say this: There were a lot of very talented young ladies that played basketball on that court tonight for both teams," South Dakota coach Dawn Plitzuweit said. "People that made a lot of plays, that handled themselves with an incredible amount of poise.

"I don't know that people at the major BCS level understand how good some of these mid-major teams are."

Early on, it looked like a game between the top two teams in the espnW mid-major rankings would be a mismatch. Even after Drake stars Becca Hittner and Sara Rhine went to the bench with early foul trouble, the reigning Missouri Valley Conference champions kept pushing forward. With Washington transfer Kierra Collier leading the way en route to 27 points, the Bulldogs led by 10 points at halftime and as many as 17 points early in the third quarter.

With Collier adding a perimeter spark around Hittner and Rhine, surrounded by seemingly swarms of shooters, Drake didn't look like the best mid-major through two and a half quarters -- it looked like one of the best teams, period. Certainly one worthy of the AP Top 25.

"I was probably way too stubborn," Plitzuweit said "I wanted to try to say that we could guard Drake in a man-to-man, but we couldn't. It was pretty evident. We just couldn't do that. They were moving the ball, swinging the ball, back cutting us, hitting 3s, posting up our guards. It seemed like everything we tried to do, they had an answer for and they scored out of it."

A switch to a zone allowed South Dakota to begin to get some stops and turn Drake's previously pinpoint passes into turnovers and transition opportunities. The Coyotes finally got some shots to drop, too. The Summit League's preseason player of the year, Duffy scored five quick points to trim the deficit from 17 to 12 with seven minutes left in the third quarter.

It was a three-point deficit by the end of that quarter. And after Drake briefly extended the advantage early in the fourth period, South Dakota guard Madison McKeever cut it to a single point with a 3-pointer with four minutes to play. Three more times the Coyotes would get within one point, but not until Arens banked in her runner in the lane as time expired, after Drake turned over the ball on an inbounds with less than three seconds to play, was it tied.

The Coyotes maintained that momentum in overtime to pull out the win.

Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk tried to take the blame for the loss, second-guessing herself for not doing more in the way of timeouts or other adjustments to slow South Dakota's momentum during its third-quarter run. But Drake isn't Villanova. It wants to push the pace and play with freedom. To pull in the reins would be to tell the players something else.

"I'm 100 percent about being able to let the players really problem solve and figure some things out," Baranczyk said. "I've never been a micromanager of every possession. You can see our offense, you can see how we do things. This game will teach us later.

"Now, the actual loss part, I've got to take that then, too. If we can learn, that's great later. But right now, it sucks."

Drake would have escaped against most teams. The third quarter lull would have been an afterthought, the opponent too far in its own head by that point to seize the opening. But South Dakota, the Summit League favorite, isn't most teams.

The Coyotes aren't always bigger, faster, stronger. They are tougher. They are people like Chloe Lamb, who won a title in the smallest class of high school basketball in South Dakota (which is, like, pretty small) and didn't care if she wasn't besieged with offers from every Division I school out there. Her six 3-pointers in Wednesday's game counted the same as any other recruit.

That's part of the reason it felt like such a big game. Because it was to those involved, just like South Dakota's earlier game at Green Bay or Drake's game against South Dakota State. "I think for us, being a mid-major, we recognize the caliber of teams that are mid-majors and that a lot of them can compete with the bigger schools," Duffy said. "It's going to be awesome to play South Carolina [later this season], don't get me wrong, but we're definitely not overlooking these other mid-major teams because we recognize a lot of them had incredible records, incredible seasons in the past. There are some really, really good teams."

The problem is that mid-major games like Wednesday night are often the proverbial tree falling in the forest. The amount of points might catch a few eyes, but a lot of people will wake up Thursday and see that an unranked mid-major beat another unranked mid-major at home.

"Clearly not, we've never gotten higher than a 10 seed," Baranczyk said when asked if people understood the quality of such games. "We're going to continue to schedule these games because they make you better. And they're regional games -- look at the fans tonight. They were in it. How many women's basketball games have student sections like they did tonight?

"Do you get the respect outside? No. But you also have to show up at the tournament, too."

But it would be easier if people understood where they came from to get there. It would be easier if they knew what they missed on nights like Wednesday.