By John Bohnenkamp
JD Gravina has seen the relentlessness of South Dakota three times this season.
“They just don’t give you much room for error,” the Western Illinois coach said on Saturday, after the 75-49 loss to the Coyotes in the Summit League tournament quarterfinals in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The No. 2 seed Coyotes (25-5) squeezed the seventh-seeded Leathernecks (14-15) from the beginning, and while Western Illinois kept the game close for much of the first half, lack of depth combined with foul trouble proved costly.
The two teams had just played on Monday, with South Dakota winning 75-48. The Coyotes swept the Leathernecks during the regular season with double-digit wins, wearing them down in each game, and the same thing would happen here.
“We were familiar with them, familiar with their plays,” said Western Illinois forward Evan Zars. “It’s just finding all of the little things that didn’t work.”
The little things didn’t work for the Leathernecks at the start.
Four Western Illinois turnovers led to a 9-0 run for South Dakota to start the game and led to Gravina calling a timeout.
The Leathernecks responded by tying the game twice late in the first quarter before falling behind 21-15.
“I’ve seen that a hundred times at this tournament, where the next thing you know you’re down 20, you’re down 25 in the first quarter,” Gravina said. “Our team really fought to stay in the game, stay within striking distance for a long time.”
“I think we just kind of got out to a slow start, I’m not sure why,” said Western Illinois guard Danni Nichols, who led the Leathernecks with 17 points. “We just kept our heads in the game and didn’t let that rattle us.”
Western Illinois had just nine players in uniform, and when Zars and Elizabeth Lutz each picked up three first-half fouls, that depth was tested.
“When you have two of your three all-conference players that are in major foul trouble, it’s a difficult challenge,” Gravina said.
“Like Coach said, there isn’t a lot of room for error,” Zars said. “You have to be very detailed, and you have to be very assertive and very disciplined when you’re playing a team like this.”
Gravina used Lutz and Zars late in the first half, even with the foul trouble. Neither fouled out of the game.
“I thought they did a good job of managing it,” he said. “Sometimes it takes them out of their games. I don’t think they did that.”
Zars finished with 10 points and five rebounds. Lutz had four points, but had five rebounds and five assists.
South Dakota’s depth was just as grinding on the Leathernecks. Chloe Lamb, the Summit League’s player of the year, had just six points and first-team selection Hannah Sjerven had 11. But Grace Larkins, the league’s sixth player of the year, had a career-high 23 points.
Gravina reflected on the season, which included a nonconference win over Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champion Southern Illinois and a championship in the Compass Challenge tournament.
“We had a tough year, some things of our own volition, but a lot of things externally that just seemed to be unlucky,” Gravina said. “I’m proud of the way this team hung together, and made it enjoyable. It was one of my more enjoyable years and teams to coach, which says a lot, with all of our challenges.”
Photo: Western Illinois’ Elizabeth Lutz (14) drives on South Dakota’s Maddie Krull during the Summit League tournament at Sioux Falls, S.D. (Richard Carlson/Inertia)