SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The unlikeliest of scenarios unfolded Monday in the Sioux Falls Arena in front of 6,769 fans. And when all was said and done, nobody affiliated with the IPFW men's basketball program cared if little of it made sense. All that the Mastodons knew was that they were now just 40 minutes away from college basketball's Holy Grail – the NCAA Tournament.
IPFW did a lot of things right, some in stunning fashion, and beat South Dakota State 64-60 in front of an arena filled to the rafters with Jackrabbit fans in the semifinal round of the Summit League Tournament. The Mastodons will face top-seed North Dakota State, which blew out Denver 83-48, at 9 tonight on ESPN 2.
The semifinal victory was the first for IPFW and only one of a number of rarities that transpired Monday.
“Obviously, it was a big win for our program,” Mastodon coach Tony Jasick understated.
Monday's win was not simply “big,” it was the most impressive in program history, possibly only topped by tonight's game if the Mastodons can silence another less than neutral crowd.
In theory, No. 2 seed IPFW (24-9) should've been expected to beat the No. 3 seed Jackrabbits (19-12). But in reality, those theorists should try to run an offense efficiently with South Dakota State guard Braydon Carlson in their face and thousands cheering their every mistake.
Given the Jackrabbits' successful tradition, as well as the geographical proximity of their campus to Sioux Falls, this tournament is closer to resembling the Jackrabbit Invitational instead of the Summit League Tournament. Any team topping the two-time defending tournament champion would have to earn its win.
IPFW did that by “staying together,” according to its leader, senior point guard Pierre Bland.
“We had up on the board 'Team together' in the locker room,” Bland said, “and that is what we did tonight.”
The Mastodons had lost nine of their 10 previous meetings with South Dakota State, including each of the past two contests in the league tournament. But Monday, they were able to withstand a second-half rally and the crowd's fervor. Shockingly, IPFW did it with virtually no production from its leading scorer.
Senior Luis Jacobo hadn't been held to fewer than eight points since a three-point game at Bradley three months ago. But against the Jackrabbit defense, he was hounded every which way, and outside of a 41-second span in the second half in which he quickly put in six points, he never scored.
“It just shows that everybody is a threat,” Bland said. “Opposing teams have to come to play us every night. You can't key on one person. Luis Jacobo may have had a bad night, but (Mo Evans) stepped up.”
That leads to the next irrational – or amazing, depending on your perspective – occurrence.
The Jackrabbits have guarded three-point shooters better than any team in the league this season, and that fact, coupled with the hostile atmosphere, could make for a nerve-wracking night for a youngster. But on this strange night, it was only natural that Evans, playing in his first Summit League Tournament, was out-of-his-mind great from long range.
He buried 6 of 7 three-point shots to set a league tournament record for accuracy. The freshman guard may have earned the conference Sixth Man of the Year honor earlier this month, but Monday he was the “Main Man” and finished with a team-best 18 points.
“Mo took a lot of the shots that he normally takes,” Jasick said. “He did get a couple more tonight than he usually does, but he's a guy that we've got the ultimate confidence in.”
IPFW got blown out in Brookings by South Dakota State last month mainly because of poor rebounding and turnovers.
Jasick's team remedied both of those issues Monday.
The Mastodons were still out-rebounded by the huge Jackrabbit lineup, but only 36 to 29. And at the offensive end, IPFW actually grabbed two more (9 to 7) than South Dakota State.
And in regard to throwing the ball away, that was South Dakota State's problem, not IPFW's.
The Mastodons continually jumped near Jackrabbit drivers and deflected balls away (IPFW had 14 steals, which led to a 22-12 scoring advantage off miscues), which fueled their transition game. The Jackrabbits committed 18 turnovers as opposed to just 11 by the Mastodons.
“At the end of the day, it is a big win,” Jasick repeated. “I think that it is big because it gives us an opportunity to play for the ultimate goal.”
That is indisputable, so regardless of its logic, who cares if it makes any sense?