USD faces top-ranked South Carolina at women’s hoops matchup

Invitational brings college basketball back to Sanford Pentagon – and fans are back, too

A women's collage basketball player leans into another on the Sanford Pentagon court.

There’s a lot to talk about in preparation for the Mammoth Sports Construction Invitational on Friday, Nov. 12, at the Sanford Pentagon.

To start with, a University of South Dakota women’s basketball team ranked just outside the Top 25 will be playing South Carolina, the No. 1 team in the nation, at 6 p.m. Coach Dawn Plitzuweit’s Coyotes will be playing USC for the third time in three seasons and for the second consecutive time at the Pentagon, where last year the Gamecocks, ranked No. 1 at the time, defeated USD 81-71.

On the same day just hours before, No. 6 Louisville will play No. 22 Arizona at the Pentagon at 3:30 p.m. Unlike a year ago when the pandemic kept fans out of the seats, tickets are available this year. One ticket is good for both games.

Get tickets: Mammoth Sports Construction Invitational, Nov. 12

Also unlike last year, when something good happens for the Coyotes, fans will have the chance to voice their approval.

“It’s phenomenal to have this level of quality at this event and it’s great to have the University of South Dakota be one of those teams,” said USD coach Dawn Plitzuweit, who led the Coyotes to their third consecutive NCAA tournament last season.

“It’s not only great for our players, their families and our program, but also our university and basketball fans in the region. It’s a special opportunity to be able to watch your team play the No. 1 team in the country.”

An Olympian on the coaching staff

On the other bench will be Dawn Staley, who won three Olympic gold medals as a player and added another as a coach this August when she guided Team USA at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. Her record coaching the national team is 45-0.

Staley brings her own local connection to the event merely by being a fan of the Pentagon and the community. That was confirmed when she decided to bring her extremely talented team back for another visit.

The Gamecocks went on to win the Bad Boy Mowers Women’s Crossover Classic last year by beating Gonzaga the day after beating USD. It came at a time when many events were being canceled. Eventually they advanced to the Final Four.

“The organizers gave our student athletes a great experience last year,” Staley said. “That was hard to do during the pandemic but we did it thanks to the people running that tournament. Everywhere we went we felt like family. Everybody in Sioux Falls is tremendously nice – and I don’t think they were doing it just for the tournament. I think that’s just the way they are.”

Regional talent on display

The Louisville-Arizona contest will include a pair of stars of the Dakotas. Sydni Schetnan, a 6-5 former Sioux Falls Washington center, is in her first season at Louisville, which is coming off an Elite Eight appearance. Lauren Ware, a 6-5 sophomore who graduated from Century High School in Bismarck, North Dakota, averaged 16 minutes a game last year for Arizona, which is coming off a national championship appearance, the first in program history. Head coach Adia Barnes led the Wildcats to a 21-6 record in 2020-21 with a 54-53 loss to Stanford for the NCAA title.

For USD, which plays five non-conference games against Power Five opponents this year, the contest with the Gamecocks is a prominent part of a plan to prepare a veteran squad for a season that includes high expectations.

“South Carolina plays at a different speed in a different style than any of the teams we compete against,” Plitzuweit said. “We play against teams that play fast and push the ball up the floor and that’s great for us because it helps us improve. But nobody does it faster than South Carolina. It’s going to be a great learning experience for our young ladies.”

For Staley, the ultimate goal is the same: Prepare for a kind of team they don’t see too often.

“It was nip-and-tuck the entire way the last time we played them,” Staley said of the contest with the Coyotes. “We look forward to a similar kind of game because they’re one of the best teams in the country. They play a style a little different than what we see in our conference and what we see in our non-conference schedule. We want to get familiar with that style in case we run into someone who plays that way in the NCAA tournament.”

All eyes on NCAA tournament

The Gamecocks are ranked No. 1 for a reason. With a roster filled with high school All-Americans, Aliyah Boston, a 6-5 junior, leads the way and will be in the running for national player of the year honors. Teammates Zia Cook and Destanni Henderson are also in ESPN’s rankings of the country’s top 25 college players for 2021-22. Staley has also recruited the top-ranked freshman class according to ESPN.

“We probably have more talent than I’ve ever coached on one team,” Staley said. “There will be some talented players sitting on the bench and not playing significantly. That brings on some challenges. But I think it will be cool to see if we can truly make this a special team. We want to win a national championship and it’s going to take a great deal of sacrifice – more so than any year I’ve coached.”

When the coach of a perennial national title contender says her team has the most talent she’s ever had, that’s a significant statement. And a significant challenge for the teams on the Gamecocks’ schedule.

The Coyotes, who finished 19-6 last season and lost to Oregon in the first round of the NCAA tournament, return seniors Liv Korngable, Chloe Lamb and Hannah Sjerven. All three have spent five years in the USD program and have been big parts of the Coyotes’ success under Plitzuweit, who is entering her sixth season with a 110-24 record at South Dakota.

“We’re going to try to slow them down but the reality is they’re still going to score and make shots and make things happen at times even if we’re playing great defense,” Plitzuweit said. “We’ll need to stay disciplined to who we are to the best of our ability. This type of matchup helps you develop the discipline to limit opportunities.”

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