Coyote women 'focusing on what makes us good' through rocky basketball season

Jan. 25—VERMILLION — There's no getting around it. The USD women took a beating from their rivals on Jan. 14.

In their first battle of the season with South Dakota State, the Coyotes were humbled by a whopping score of 118-59.

Yes, the Jackrabbits were the consensus pick to win the Summit this year, they were at home, and they're healthier than USD. But it was still an eye-opening defeat. The Coyotes are operating under a rookie coach in Kayla Karius and still in the process of figuring out how to replace the loss of three all-time greats, and the Jacks had their way with a team one year removed from 29 wins, a conference title and Sweet 16 appearance.

"We had a tough day and they had a great day," Karius said of the game.

With a young team and a new coach, it was the kind of loss that threatens to derail a season. But in perhaps the most sure sign yet that Karius has what it takes to keep the Coyotes near the top of the mid-major hill, they immediately responded with a pair of road wins.

They're 6-3 in conference play heading into this week's Thursday-Saturday homestand against Western Illinois (8-12, 3-6 Summit) and St. Thomas (7-12, 2-7) and the loss to SDSU is firmly in the rear-view mirror.

"I think our messaging was really important," Karius said, adding that the hype and emotion of the rivalry might have impacted her team negatively. "We really had to go back to focusing on what makes us good."

A heated practice on the Monday following the game seemed to get the Yotes' minds right. Karius admitted it was highly competitive — chippy, even — which gave them their 'edge' back.

In their next game, a 70-63 win over Omaha, they were back to diving for loose balls and executing assignments quickly, something that was missing against the Jacks.

Two days later, in Denver, they beat the Pioneers in a Monday game that was a makeup of an early weather postponement. After giving up 118 points against SDSU, the Coyotes defense surrendered only 113 in their two subsequent wins.

"Getting that edge back is really what we needed," Karius said. "It paid off and we were able to not let that one loss turn into two."

At 10-10 overall, USD has already lost more games than they did in any of Dawn Plitzuweit's six seasons. But this was obviously going to be a rebuilding year to at least some degree, and injuries to key players like Madison Grange, Jeniah Ugofsky and others only made the task more difficult. The limited personnel has forced a team that hoped to run a fast-paced, up-tempo style to shorten games by walking the ball up the court at times and relying on defense.

"I don't know if I sat back before the season started and said, OK, when we're 20 games into the season what do I think our record is gonna be," Karius said. "But I think we've experienced a ton of curveballs that nobody saw coming as far as injuries go. It's been a lot of adjustments, different lineups, people playing out of positions and mixing in defenses we didn't anticipate using."

Record notwithstanding, they're holding their own. The Yotes are a game back of North Dakota State for second place in the league standings, and with a potential at-large bid out of the question this year, they needn't sweat regular season losses. If they get healthy and keep improving, maybe they'll be a threat to SDSU in March.

"I think the best thing we're doing right now is that we're moving on an upward trend," said Karius, who has watched Grace Larkins emerge as one of the league's best all-around players, averaging 17.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.1 steals. "We have this maturity about us to learn from a game, turn the page and move on. That's not easy with a young group. We haven't played our best basketball yet and we just keep getting better, and that's been our goal the whole season."