As the clock hit zero, the University of South Dakota fans in attendance Thursday night cheered like they'd never cheered before.
And for good reason. The storybook season for USD and head coach Chad Lavin rolls on, as the Coyotes beat top-ranked and unbeaten Delta State University 68-58 in the Division II women's Elite Eight national semifinal.
"There's not words to describe my thoughts on this team," Lavin said in the post-game press conference. "We just hope we can keep it going."
It's on to the title game, where USD (33-1) will face Northern Kentucky in Saturday's 5 p.m. championship.
"It's exciting, but it's almost surreal right now," said USD point guard Shannon Daly, who has led a quartet of senior starters for the Coyotes this season.
With a combined record of 65-1 between the two teams, it was clear that whoever won would have to pull a major upset. For USD to move on, the Coyotes would have to do exactly that.
"That is an outstanding team to beat; it's a credit to our kids," said Lavin, whose impending retirement will have to wait one more game. "We're very diverse. That's been of the biggest keys for us during the playoffs."
The biggest contribution for the Coyotes on this exciting night was the play of freshman Amber Hegge. The Crofton, Neb., native scored 15 points and didn't miss from the free throw line en route to easily her best game of the season.
"This wasn't the first game Hegge's come through for us," Daly said. "We call her spider because she can block anything. It didn't surprise anyone of us how well she played.
Added Lavin, "There's gotta be a reason for a kid that won all those state titles in high school."
Senior Jeana Hoffman scored a game-high 19 points, a night after scoring 27 against Washburn. For Delta State (33-1), Jessica Boyd had 12 points and Brittani Calhoun added 10.
The final 10-point margin wasn't as close as it appeared. In what was a one-point Delta State lead with just over four minutes to play quickly switched to USD's favor.
Hegge scored six straight points and the Hoffman twins added the final five as USD closed the game on a 11-0 run. The majority of the final points came from the free throw line, when the Lady Statesmen were forced to foul.
"The kids have hit big-time free throws all year," Lavin said of USD's 18-of-19 performance from the line.
USD's one-point 39-38 halftime cushion turned into a Delta State one-point lead after Jennifer Rushing opened the second half with a basket. But from there, the Coyotes cruised to a 13-3 run and led by nine — 52-43 — with 12 minutes to go.
But the Lady Statesmen began playing like a poised squad and embarked on a 11-3 run to take a 56-55 lead with just under five minutes to play.
"Was a tale of two halves. They did some wonderful things; we just had no answer in the first half," Lavin said. "We were fortunate they were having trouble guarding us."
Down 6-0 to start the game, the Coyotes showed the kind of resilience fans have come to expect this season. Within six minutes, USD had climbed ahead 16-13 thanks to a pair of threes from Ashley Robinette and Yankton native Maggie Youngberg.
Hegge was active in the game's first half, scoring six points — 4-of-4 from the free throw line — with two assists and two steals.
"What helps us so much is how diverse we are," Jeana Hoffman said. "It's important for our team to adapt to other defense, but we've stayed with what's got us this far."
The two teams traded leads for the rest of the first half, but it was a buzzer-beating three-pointer from Jeana Hoffman that gave USD a 39-38 halftime cushion.
It was the first time the nation's No. 1 team had trailed at the half all season.
And once USD started putting together its second-half run, the nation's No. 1 team got flustered.
With the majority of the 1,604 fans in attendance at the UNK Health and Sports Center cheering for the Coyotes, Daly said the atmosphere "absolutely" played into the Coyotes' favor.
"To be honest, it still feels like we're playing in the DakotaDome," she said. "It felt like a home court out there."
USD will face a Northern Kentucky (27-8) squad that was last in the championship game in 2003 — when the Norse fell to South Dakota State.
"We'll have our hands full," Lavin said. "It always comes down to who makes more plays in the end.
"We're excited to just have the chance to play team."