The University of South Dakota Coyotes' goal of reaching the Women's National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) for the first time came to fruition, but in their initial game — a 61-53 win over the Drake Bulldogs Thursday night at the DakotaDome — proved they weren't satisfied with a small taste of March Madness.
In a sultry DakotaDome, the Coyotes shot 53.2-percent while holding the Bulldogs to 32.8 percent in a game that featured two teams with short benches.
"That was a great March Madness basketball game; we beat a team that really did not want to lose," USD head coach Ryun Williams said. "I am proud of our effort — especially in the second half; it was a great game.
"Our kids really embraced the moment; we want our kids to play these games with passion because that's all you've got," Williams added. "It's fun to see our kids compete at that level."
The Coyotes took control with a 10-0 run in the second half and all but sealed the game with a heroic shot from senior Annie Roche.
Nursing a 51-48 lead with four minutes to play and just five seconds left on the shot clock, Roche took the ball deep in the backcourt and raced to the top of the circle for a 3-point shot that touched nothing but twine.
Roche's clutch conversion gave USD a 54-48 lead and all but sealed the deal.
Tempestt Wilson, who has struggled since late January with her 3-point shot, found the drive to her liking Thursday, and answered a bucket from Drake's Amber Wollschlager with a take to the rack and a 56-50 lead with 1:45 remaining.
"The second half, we kept our composure," USD senior forward Amber Hegge said. "For key plays, Annie's 3-pointer I remember that; everybody made plays."
The Coyotes made five of eight free throws in the final 51 seconds to score the 61-53 win and move on to the WNIT's second round.
The war of attrition began in the first half as the teams traded jabs and leads.
Roche gave the Coyotes a 14-12 advantage as she splashed in a 3-pointer over Wollschlager, a former Milbank
Bulldog whom Roche opposed in the 2007 State 'A' tourney.
The 'Yotes tied the game at 19-all as Hegge went plastic in the paint for an acrobatic shot from underneath the basket.
Drake responded with a quick 7-0 run as freshman Kyndal Clark dropped in a trey from the top of the circle and moved in a little closer on the return trip for a second jumper. Morgan Reid dropped a dime to a cutting Carly Grenfell for a lay-in, and the Bulldogs led 26-19.
After a timeout, Williams and the Coyotes went to their money player in Hegge.
The Summit League's 2nd-leading scorer rolled away from her defender and converted on a pass from Wilson to cash in the on the timeout. Hegge then hung in the air for a short bucket and added a loose-ball hoop, and USD battled to within 28-25.
Roche scored on a drive to end the half, but Drake held a 30-27 margin.
The Coyotes were efficient in the half as they shot 52.2 percent and Hegge scored 14 points.
Wollschlager had eight points at the break for Drake.
The DakotaDome had reason to rock in the second half's outset as their Coyotes quickly regained the lead.
A 3-point play from Wilson pulled the Coyotes to within 32-31, and Hegge dished to Jodie Boss for a bucket, and USD led 33-32 2:21 into the half.
Drake took their final lead of the game with 14:23 remaining on a putback from Reid.
Wilson answered with a jumper that began the 10-0 USD run, putting the Coyotes on the right track with a 45-36 bulge.
Boss, the Summit League's Defensive Player of the Year, continued to play defense in the second half on Drake's top scorer, the 6-3 Rachael Hackbarth.
"Hackbarth is an amazing player and Boss did an awesome job; she's hard to contain solo," Hegge said.
Boss finished with four blocked shots and never picked up her fourth foul.
"I just came out with the mentality to take it at her," Hackbarth said.
"That's a credit to her that she didn't pick up her fourth foul — she's a good defender."
Hegge finished with 20 points, three assists and three blocks as Roche scored 15 points and Wilson netted 13 points. Boss pulled down 10 rebounds.
Hackbarth was held in check though she scored 16 points. Wollschlager scored 15 points in front of 40 family and friends in her final collegiate game and Clark had 11 points. Hackbarth, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, pulled down 17 rebounds.
USD's bench played a total of eight minutes while Drake used just six players.
"It was a terrific effort on their part; they did a good job of wearing us down," Drake head coach Amy Stephens said of the Coyotes. "They spread the floor and worked the shot clock, and that took its toll in the second half."
The Coyotes, now 23-7, will host Colorado next Monday night at 7 p.m. The Buffalos moved into the tourney's second round by beating Northern Colorado 54-42 Wednesday night.
"It was a great environment," Roche said. "Our fans were great and we're looking forward to having another one here."
"What a fun game; that's what this time of year is about," Williams said. "We've got a Pac-12 team coming in here; what an exciting thing for our kids and our program."