An automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is on the line tonight in Sioux Falls, as the South Dakota State Jackrabbits take on the Western Illinois Fighting Leathernecks in the title game of the 28th annual Summit League Tournament.
Expected to make it at least this far were the second-seeded Jackrabbits who first ripped apart IUPUI (77-56) in the quarterfinals on Saturday, and then conquered Southern Utah last night, 63-47.
As for the Leathernecks, the fourth seed in the tourney, they had a couple of tough matchups that went their way in order to advance to the championship round. First, the team had to dismiss North Dakota State in the quarterfinals on Sunday, 58-53, and then they had to summon all their strength in order to slip by top-seeded Oral Roberts last night, 54-53, thanks to a late jumper by Terell Parks.
The Jackrabbits won both of the regular-season meetings between the teams this year, the first being by just a single point on the road back in early December, 67-66, and the other a more comfortable 74-57 final at home in late February. As a result, the all-time series now favors SDSU by a count of 9-3.
South Dakota State came into this year's event with a record of just 2-3 all- time in the tourney, while Western Illinois won this tournament when it was known as the Mid-Continent Conference, with a 73-64 victory over Cleveland State back in 1984.
Western Illinois led by as many as seven points early in the first half versus Oral Roberts yesterday, but the team saw a 15-point swing into the second half and had to come from behind in order to sneak into the title game. Parks, who nailed the game-winning shot, finished with 14 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots, while Ceola Clark tacked on 11 points as he matched Jack Houpt out on the perimeter with 3-of-5 shooting beyond the arc. Over the course of 31 games this season, of which he appeared in and started 30, Clark paces the program in scoring with his 13.6 ppg, showing off as one of the more accomplished three-point shooters in the nation with 81-of-175 (.463) accuracy. But more than just a hot hand from the outside, Clark also leads the team in assists (142) and steals (47) so he is always willing to do whatever it takes. Obi Emegano and Parks are responsible for 13.4 and 12.2 ppg, respectively, the latter also clearing a team-best 9.2 rpg.
Ahead by just a single point at the break versus Southern Utah, the Jackrabbits increased their shooting from the floor from 45.8 percent in the opening period to 57.1 percent after intermission in order to give themselves ample separation. Nate Wolters, one of the top performers that the rest of the nation has never heard of, erupted for 31 points, hitting 10-of-17 from the field and 10-of-12 at the free-throw line. Wolters also accounted for seven rebounds and six assists, both of which were team highs as well, while Jordan Dykstra responded with 17 points before picking up his fifth personal foul. Even though he is just a 24.6 percent shooter beyond the arc this season, Wolters is still putting up an impressive 21.5 ppg, thanks in large part to his 181-of-231 shooting at the free-throw line. Dominating with the basketball Wolters, who has made almost twice as many foul shots as anyone on the team has even attempted, has close to three times as many assists (194) as turnovers (68) and is also first on the unit with 5.1 rpg and 54 steals which tells the story of one of the most complete players in Division I.