The first true home challenge was nearly a signature victory.
Yet, in the end, it was simply a could-have-been.
In its first home game against a full-fledged Division I opponent, the University of South Dakota men's basketball team saw a nine-point second half lead go by the wayside in a 66-64 loss to Morehead State on Monday night inside the DakotaDome.
Against a Morehead State team with four starters back from last season's run to the NCAA Tournament, the Coyotes (6-5) gave the visitors all they could handle.
"You can always take things away from every game you play, but when you're in a hard-fought game like this, you want to see your guys make that play to win it," said USD coach Dave Boots, whose team had previously hosted North Dakota, Seattle and SIU-Edwardsville since moving to the D-I level.
"We tried the best we could," he added. "It was a super effort by our kids."
But it was a late charge from the Eagles, coupled with some cold shooting from the three-point and free throw lines by USD, that did in the hosts.
Morehead senior Maze Stallworth hit a go-ahead three-pointer with 1:45 to play, and USD committed two turnovers down the stretch before hitting 1-of-2 free throws with three seconds to play.
A 40-foot three-point attempt at the buzzer by Coyote freshman Jake Thomas clanked off the rim, and the Dome crowd of 1,045 let out a collective breath.
"Games like this just come down to a few plays," said USD senior forward Tyler Cain, who posted 17 points and 15 rebounds. "Whoever gets those breaks on basically jump balls will probably come out on top.
"And they won that battle."
USD slowly built a first-half lead against a physical Morehead State team led by junior forward Kenneth Faried, the nation's second-leading rebounder a year ago. The back-and-forth opening half featured six ties before the Coyotes put together an 11-2 run to go ahead 30-21.
The Coyotes led 36-29 at halftime thanks to a 59.3 percent shooting effort from the field.
However, Morehead State used a surge of its own to close the gap.
After USD led 38-29 ¬¬– its largest lead of the game – the Eagles opened the second half on an 8-2 run to pull within 38-37 with 16:32 to play. But six minutes later, the Coyotes had pushed the margin back out to 49-43.
USD senior Roman Gentry hit a pair of free throws at the 3:30 mark to give the Coyotes a 63-62 lead. But with 1:45 to play, Morehead's Stallworth drained another three-pointer – his fourth of the game – to give the Eagles the lead.
Gentry missed a layup with 1:27 to play, and USD would later commit a pair of turnovers. Fouled with three seconds left, Cain missed the first of two free throws before banking in the second attempt. Stallworth did the same with two seconds to play, but Thomas would narrowly miss a game-winning three at the horn.
"Both teams played well defensively; there weren't a lot of easy baskets by either side," Boots said. "It was a good battle all the way through. But they made a couple plays to win the game."
Before fouling out with six minutes left in the game, Morehead's leading scorer Faried – projected by some Web sites to be an NBA draft prospect – paced the Eagles with 15 points and 15 rebounds. Stallworth led the way with 21 points, while Steve Peterson added 12 points and Demonte Harper had 10.
Members of the Ohio Valley Conference, Morehead State (6-6) out-rebounded the Coyotes 44-32, including a 17-9 edge on the offensive glass.
"That's what we've been preparing for," Cain said. "We knew it'd be a tough game; knew it'd be physical. But we were ready for it. We played pretty physical right back at them."
Aside from Cain's 17 points, USD had three players with 10 points – Gentry, Thomas and reserve Kendall Cutler. Cutler, a junior transfer from Western Oklahoma State, added five assists, four rebounds and four steals.
USD returns to action on Sunday for a noon contest at No. 12 Kansas State (11-1) in Manhattan, KS.
MOREHEAD STATE (6-6)
Maze Stallworth 7-15 3-4 21; Brandon Shingles 1-3 0-1 2; Demonte Harper 4-11 0-0 10; Steve Peterson 6-12 0-0 12; Kenneth Faried 5-9 5-7 15; Terrance Hill 1-5 0-0 2; Jason Beharie 0-0 0-0 0; Sam Goodman 1-3 2-2 4; Les Simmons 0-4 0-2 0. TOTALS 25-62 10-16 66.
SOUTH DAKOTA (6-6)
Roman Gentry 3-9 4-4 10; Louie Krogman 1-5 0-0 3; Jake Thomas 3-9 2-2 10; Tyler Cain 6-8 5-9 17; Steve Smith 4-9 0-0 8; Mitchell Bouie 2-4 0-3 4; Kendall Cutler 3-6 4-7 10; Jordan Boots 0-1 0-0 0; Conrad Krutwig 1-1 0-0 2. TOTALS 23-52 15-25 64.
At The Half: USD 36, MSU 29. Three-Pointers: MSU 6-14 (Stallworth 4-9, Harper 2-2, Peterson 0-1, Hill 0-1, Simmons 0-1), USD 3-18 (Thomas 2-7, Krogman 1-4, Boots 0-1, Smith 0-2, Gentry 0-4). Total Rebounds: MSU 44 (Faried 15), USD 32 (Cain 15). Assists: USD 16 (Krogman 6), MSU 13 (Shingles 7). Steals: USD 10 (Cutler 4), MSU 9 (Stallworth 5). Total Fouls: MSU 23, USD 13. Fouled Out: MSU 1 (Faried). A: 1045.