BY CHRIS RILEY
University of South Dakota senior Sam Mehr and the rest of the Coyotes picked an opportune time to play arguably their best half of the 2012-13 season, outscoring North Dakota State by 25 points over the final 15 minutes of Sunday’s first-round Summit League matchup.
Mehr, a bench player for her entire college career, scored a season-high 14 points — including a 4-for-6 effort from three-point range — to help USD overcome a sluggish start and knock off the Bison by a final of 73-53 at the Sioux Falls Arena.
“We are so excited to be a part of this tournament for the first time and to step up and get a win like that with lots of people contributing was a great team win,” USD head coach Amy Williams said.
The Coyotes looked tentative in the first 25 minutes of action in their first Summit League Tourney appearance. Despite holding a 28-26 halftime lead, USD was uncharacteristically out-rebounded (26-22) in the first 20 minutes while the Bison got 13 first-half points from senior standout Katie Birkel.
The lackluster Coyote play continued early in the second half, with NDSU using a 9-2 run to take a 35-30 lead with 16:43 to play and causing Williams to call a time-out.
“The big message in that huddle was that I thought we were playing passively and that is not South Dakota basketball,” Williams said. “That’s not what wins you games at this time of the year.”
The Coyotes got the message loud and clear, as a three-pointer by Mehr with 14:38 to play keyed an 18-0 USD run that spanned the next five minutes, resulting in a 48-35 Coyote lead with 9:57 left in the game.
Mehr, who finished just three point shy of her career high (17 against Iowa Wesleyan in November of 2009), attributed the offensive outburst to USD’s increase in defensive pressure.
“It all started with picking up the intensity on defense,” Mehr said. “Everyone fed off each other.”
In addition to USD’s scoring outburst, the Coyotes also managed to slow down Birkel as the senior scored just seven points after halftime.
“(Birkel) had a big first half and was pretty much doing everything,” USD sophomore Nicole Seekamp said. “We were made aware of where she was and it wasn’t just Alexis (Yackley) playing defense on her, it was the whole team.”
The Bison did manage to close the deficit back to eight points with just over six minute to play, but a 12-2 Coyote run sparked by a pair of Mehr three’s put South Dakota back up by 18 points with less than three minutes to play and NDSU never mounted another serious threat.
Williams couldn’t help but praise Mehr after the game.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Sam,” Williams said. “She has not had much playing time her whole career but has stayed ready all the time. It certainly adds some depth and gives us one more shooting thereat on the perimeter.”
Mehr, who has appeared in more games than any other current Coyote (112) but has never started, added to her heroic scoring efforts with four rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks.
Seekamp and senior Tempestt Wilson finished with 15 points apiece. Freshman Margaret McCloud also ended in double digits, scoring 10 points while adding six rebounds. Wilson and sophomore Lisa Loeffler grabbed seven rebounds each.
The Coyotes shot 51 percent from the field in the second half after managing just 36 percent in the first. They outshot NDSU 44-32 percent for the entire game and also finished with a 45-40 rebounding edge. Most telling was the bench scoring margin, 30-2 in favor of the Coyotes.
Birkel finished with 20 points for the Bison, who end their year 10-19. Senior Dani DeGagne was the only other Bison in double figures, scoring 12 points.
USD, 16-14, plays IUPUI at 2:30 p.m. today (Monday) with the winner advancing to Tuesday afternoon’s championship game and a shot to advance to the NCAA women’s tournament.
USD is 2-0 against IUPUI this year, picking up a 76-56 road win on January 26 and knocking off the Jaguars in the DakotaDome by a final of 56-39 on February 21.
“We feel like we haven’t really got their best shot this year,” Williams said of the second-seeded Jaguars. “We know how difficult it is to beat a team for the third time in a season so we’re going to have to be sharp.”
Now that they are just two victories away from a NCAA tournament appearance, the Coyotes are finding that being a full-fledged member of Division I is quite fun.
“It is exciting,” Tempestt Wilson said. “The University of South Dakota has been waiting for this for a long time.”
You can follow Chris Riley on Twitter at twitter.com/ChrisCRiley.