This certainly was not the way Utah State expected to end its first season under head coach Jerry Finkbeiner.
Despite leading by double digits in the second half against South Dakota, the Aggies could not seal the deal.
Nicole Seekamp scored 33 points and Polly Harrington added 15 as the Coyotes rallied for a 77-69 victory over the Aggies in the first round of the Women’s Basketball Invitational on Thursday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum.
“It wasn’t the ending of the season that we wanted or even expected tonight,” Finkbeiner said. “It’s almost a carbon copy of probably about a half a dozen games this year, where the first half is kind of back and forth, then all of a sudden we get a little lead in the second half. We begin trading baskets and then we begin not making shots and we get beat in the last three minutes.
“I wish there was a magical answer for that, but there was probably about six games this year that looked just like tonight and it’s kind of haunted us all year long.”
Tempestt Wilson chipped in 12 points for South Dakota (18-15), which trailed 38-28 with 16:54 to go in the game.
“Our defense was just lost,” said guard Jenna Johnson, who had eight points and 13 rebounds in her final game as an Aggie. “The fight and determination was just not in there. Defense is going to win you a ball game and the defense just wasn’t there in the second half to get us a win.”
No, it wasn’t.
Especially when it came to guarding Seekamp. The sophomore guard scored 28 of her points in the second half on 9 of 10 shooting from the field, including knocking down all three of her 3-point shots.
“She just looked for her shot and then again, it comes back to our defense,” Johnson said. “We weren’t identifying that she was playing really well. It comes back to our defense and that’s going to hurt us. If someone on the other team is playing well, we’ve got to identify it and put a hand up or get in there a little bit further.”
For the game, Seekamp shot 11 for 16 from the field and 7 for 8 from the free throw line. She also had five rebounds and four assists.
After USU (18-14) opened its 10-point lead early in the second half, Seekamp single-handedly brought the Coyotes back as she scored 11 straight points for her team to pare the deficit to 41-39 with 13:32 to go.
“We couldn’t guard her,” Finkbeiner said.
Like Seekamp, Jennifer Schlott got hot for the Aggies, who lost three of their last four games, in the second half.
The junior guard scored 18 of her team-high 25 points following intermission.
“Offensively, they were playing really tight on our shooters, so I just had wide open lanes,” Schlott said.
Schlott, who shot 10 for 16 from the field, also handed out eight assists and grabbed a couple of rebounds in her 36 minutes of work.
“Jen Schlott was probably the only one who really had a stat line that you can highlight with yellow,” Finkbeiner said.
That’s probably a fair assessment considering Johnson shot 2 for 11, while fellow senior Devyn Christensen was 6 for 22 on her way to 16 points.
“We have one excuse for one player, Jenna Johnson,” Finkbeiner said. “She’s got a dislocated finger that happened two weeks ago. It is a fractured finger and we know that. She really hurt it again two days ago and that’s affected her offensive play, there’s no question about it.
“If you look at her stats the last two weeks, she just hasn’t shot the ball the way she did the previous three months. Devyn tonight, I think she was just too anxious and hurried everything a little bit.”
USU, which was the third seed in the West Region of the WBI, shot just 35.6 percent from the field, but only 20.8 percent from 3-point range (5 for 24).
“We usually shoot better,” Schlott said. “We knew they weren’t falling and we should have attacked more.”
Conversely, the Coyotes, who will now take on Lamar in the quarterfinals of the WBI, connected on 42.2 percent of their shots. In the second half alone, South Dakota was 17 for 26 from the field, including 5 for 6 from beyond the arc.
“I just feel like defensively we let them do whatever they wanted basically,” Schlott said. “They fastbreaked on us, they got wide open 3s. We were out of sync tonight defensively.”
Franny Vaaulu, who had six points and seven rebounds, scored on a layup to give the Aggies a 58-56 lead with 6:45 to go.
However, South Dakota moved in front for good when Wilson banked in a 3 from the left wing with 5:37 to go. That basket ignited a 9-0 run for the Coyotes.
Down 20-12 at one point in the first half, USU turned things around with a 20-2 run. The Aggies led 32-24 at the half.
“We changed up our defense in the first half and we threw out a zone,” Johnson said. “I think it kind of got them out of rhythm. Just the defensive pressure and I think the last 10 minutes of the first half, we brought some fight, we brought some energy, we brought some togetherness and we were working for it, we wanted the win.
“Then we just lost that in the second half. We thought it was going to be easy and we played with some finesse instead of some fierceness.”
The Coyotes missed 13 straight shots at one point in the first half and went 7:36 between field goals.
“The South Dakota girls, there was just an even keel about them,” Finkbeiner said. “They didn’t get anxious when they fell behind, they didn’t over-celebrate when they got the lead. It’s an impressive group that has an even keel about them and they’re just steady.”
One bright spot for the Aggies was the fact they set the single-season school record for points (2,448). USU came into the game 14 points shy of reaching that mark. The old record (2,392) was set in 1982.