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Mar. 18—BLACKSBURG, Va. — South Dakota State has faced down some big challenges on some big stages in their two decades of Division I women's basketball.
Sunday's might be the biggest.
The 9th-seeded Jackrabbits will be taking on No. 1 seed Virginia Tech on the Hokies' home floor in a 4 p.m. tipoff for a spot in the Sweet 16 in Seattle. It'll be the first time SDSU has faced a No. 1 seed in their 11 NCAA tournament appearances.
The Jacks (29-5) are rolling — they've won 22 games in a row — but they're not delusional. They know this will take their very, very best.
"We are not going to go out there and impose our will," said coach Aaron Johnston. "We have to be really sharp with our defensive plan, how do we want to defend some of their actions. Offensively, I think we are going to have to be better than we were (Friday) night and be more efficient. The thing I like about our team is I think they are really poised; play with a lot of confidence. I think they will really dig in and try to execute what we ask them to do. Those are the things we have done all year."
The Jacks have been to the Sweet 16 once before, in 2019. But that year SDSU was a 6-seed. The team they beat to get to the round of 16, Syracuse, was a 3-seed.
This is different. The Hokies are ranked 4th in the country, winners of 12 in a row as they put together what is likely the best season in school history. At 28-4, they've tied the school record for wins in a season. They won the ACC tournament, and five of the wins in their current streak have come against ranked teams.
And yet, this doesn't entirely feel like an insurmountable obstacle.
Of the four No. 1 seeds, the Hokies feel like the least intimidating. They've only been to the Sweet 16 once themselves, back in 1999, and they've never gone further than that. They did not win the ACC regular season title — they finished in a tie for second with Duke behind Notre Dame. And in Friday's first-round game against 16th-seeded Chattanooga, the Hokies scored just 58 points.
All that said, just because the Hokies are not as dominant as, say, the No. 1 South Carolina team SDSU faced earlier this year, does not mean Jacks fans should start making hotel reservations in Seattle.
The Hokies did not win those 28 games by accident. They have one of the biggest, best and msot experienced post players in the country in Elizabeth Kitley, a 6-foot-6 senior who is a two-time ACC player of the year, averaging 18.4 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. She plays along graduate Taylor Soule, an undersized but experienced 5-11 forward who averages 11.2 points and 5.7 boards, while the Hokie lineup is rounded out by a trio of veteran guards — junior Georgia Amoore (15.5 points, 5.2 assists) and seniors Kayana Traylor (10.8 points) and Cayla King (7.9 points, .370 3-point percentage).
The Hokies are coached by Kenny Brooks, a former James Madison player who turned his alma mater's women's program into a perennial tournament team before sliding across the state to VT. He's now taken the Hokies to three straight NCAA tournaments, and there's a strong sense in and around Blacksburg that this is the culmination of a build toward something special. The Hokies are big, experienced, talented and hungry, with a fan base that has jumped on board. Their first round game against Chattanooga was a sellout, and another big and loud crowd is expected Sunday at Cassell Coliseum, where the fans are right on top of the action in what is a compact arena.
"It was incredible (Friday) and I'm even more excited to see what they bring tomorrow," Amoore said of Hokie fans. "Because the more fans, the more is at stake and more energy and emotion that plays into it. I'm very excited for the crowd tomorrow. I would say our student section is a bit ruthless sometimes."
The Jacks are used to riding a huge home crowd to glory in Sioux Falls. Now they're going to be the ones with fans dealing with noise and hostile fans.
"We talked about it," said Myah Selland, whose 29 points carried the Jacks to Friday's win over USC. "We are kind of excited to be on the other side of that, and it's always fun when you get to play in an environment where there's a lot of people, a lot of fans. And we saw yesterday just the support that this program has. And so any time you get to be a part of an atmosphere like that, it's exciting, so that's something we talked about just embracing and having fun with."
Of course, while those fans will be doing everything they can to make things hard on the visiting Jackrabbits, there's no denying that there's pressure on Virginia Tech.
"I mean, it's a little bit of pressure obviously," said Traylor. "But I think we worked to get to this point, and I mean, this is exactly what we wanted. It's more about taking advantage of the opportunity than thinking about the pressure that's on us."
The Jacks needed overtime to beat the Trojans, and it was a physical, slugfest of a game. SDSU players admitted to being sore on Saturday. But they're hopeful the day off is enough rest for them to be ready to go. The Hokies watched most of the SDSU/USC game, and were most impressed by SDSU's poise. Amoore noted the defensive pressure USC applied to SDSU, and that the Jacks "didn't look fazed at all."
"They're not scared of the moment," Brooks said. "They're not scared of, you know, when some people call a Power Five. They think they're as good as anyone. And I agree. I think they are."