For college basketball programs, the non-conference slate is the equivalent of a thief casing his next big heist.
What you learn, and how you prepare to overcome any potential hazards, could mean the difference between success and failure.
After four games, the Cougars (3-1) know the easiest way for them to get caught in the NSIC.
The Cougars (3-1), who posted a predictable but too-close-for-comfort 78-64 win over a gritty Dakota State (2-5) team Saturday night at the Stewart Center, must both find and maintain their energy for two halves of basketball.
“First and foremost, you’ve got to be happy with any win,” USF head coach Travis Traphagen said. “It’s a funny team that we have right now—the tough thing is trying to be positive but there is a lack of energy and not playing with passion.”
“You talk about a stepping stone and wanting to get better each and every game to get ready for conference play and I don’t know if we necessarily took a step forward tonight,” he added. “There’s going to be a lot to learn from the film.”
It is unsettling, but understandable, that the Cougars again looked out of sync early, with starters Holli Aggen and Amber Paden out with knee injuries and leading scorer Laura Johnson battling the flu. In fact, Traphagen used his fourth different starting lineup in as many games.
“We can’t make that excuse all the time about two starters not playing,” Traphagen said. “This gives some kids some great opportunities to step up and we’re just not finding some of those things right now.”
After six lead changes and one tie, a sluggish USF squad held a 38-33 advantage at halftime. The Cougars trailed by as much as 10 but responded with a 22-7 spurt to take the five-point lead into the locker room. They also forced their intra-state rival into 10 first half turnovers.
Mikenna Greathouse and Jaicee Ulmer led the Cougars with nine points each. Bailey Bouman had five points and five rebounds at the break.
Dakota State came out of the break energized, though. The Lady Trojans chipped away and a layup by Alyson Drooger pulled DSU to within one, 52-51, with 12:11 remaining to bring a packed visitors’ section to its collective feet.
USF finally showed some urgency and pulled away for good with a 10-2 run over the next three-and-a-half minutes to push their lead to 64-53. The run started with a layup by Teagan Molden and Greathouse added five points near the end of the spurt.
Junior guard Chrissy Strassburg provided a major moment, stealing a ball that she kicked to Rushton for a three-pointer to force a DSU timeout.
“That energy play allowed us to get going,” Traphagen said. “We talk to our kids about that all the time, there’s so many ways in a basketball game to make an energy play that’s not just making a basket—it might be taking a charge or making a great pass but we’ve got to feed off that.”
The Lady Trojans never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
It was a coming-out party for Greathouse, as the Kansas City CC transfer tallied career-highs in points (19) and rebounds (16) for her first double-double as a Cougar.
“She did some really good things here tonight, but we’ve got to get her better defensively,” Traphagen said. “I’m going to be the first one to throw that out there for as much praise as I’m going to give her on the offensive end and on the glass.”
Alyssa Rushton was USF’s unsung hero, adding 10 points (seven in the second half) on 4-for-8 shooting to go with six rebounds. Ulmer finished with 12 points and Bouman had 10 points and six boards. Molden and Johnson each had eight points.
Dakota State was led by 6-foot-1 center and Sioux Falls O’Gorman product Katy Pillar, who scored 17 points on 6-for-15 shooting to go along with nine rebounds and two assists.
Despite continued struggles from the perimeter, where they made just 5 of 20 from beyond the arc, USF shot 42.3 percent from the field. The Lady Trojans shot an identical 42.3 percent from the floor and were held to 64 points, nearly ten less than their season average.
The Cougars dominated the glass all game, winning the rebounding battle 49-29, including 21 offensive rebounds.
“The reality is that we made some plays down the stretch,” Traphagen said. “I am happy with the win, but we have a long ways to go to be able to get ready to be able to compete against Southwest Minnesota State next Saturday.”
Stephanie Pendrys, USF, Sports Information