VERMILLION, S.D. | South Dakota’s quest for a repeat Summit League women’s basketball title has reached its most critical stage.

It’s only fitting that the Coyotes (19-4) and arch-rival South Dakota State (17-5) clash Saturday at Frost Arena in Brookings (2 p.m.) for the outright Summit lead. USD and the Jackrabbits are tied atop the league standings with 8-2 marks, so the winner goes a game ahead while the loser faces the possibility of being in a three-way tie for second place.

South Dakota snapped a 26-game losing skid inside Frost Arena last season and beat the Jacks 65-62 on New Year’s Eve at the Sanford Coyotes Sports Center.

If the Coyotes are to indeed repeat as conference champion, they must prove to be the ultimate road warriors. Five of their final seven games are on the road.

Yes, winning another Summit League title would certainly be sweet, but even more remarkable is the fact that USD is in this position at all.

After putting together one of the most successful seasons in school history, culminated by a WNIT championship, the Coyotes graduated four of five starters and lost head coach Amy Williams, who took over at the University of Nebraska.

Then, to make matters worse, Caitlin Duffy, the lone returning starter, and key reserve Jasmine Trimboli each suffered injuries before the season began and have yet to see action.

Despite the perceived shortcomings, the team has picked up where it left off under first-year Coach Dawn Plitzuweit.

“I’m very impressed with a couple things about this group of young ladies, first and foremost with their hunger, they want to be very good,” said Plitzuweit, who came to USD from Northern Kentucky. “And with them wanting to be very good they’ve also been very, very coachable.

“They’ve made some vast changes. The things that USD was very successful at as a program in the past, the way that they went about scoring and defending, is very different than what we do this year. So our players have made big adjustments within their game and they have been willing to do that.”

A third component, Plitzuweit said, is that they have fun doing it.

“They get after it and work their tails off, but they giggle and laugh,” Plitzuweit said. “This is their fun, they enjoy being around each other. During the course of the season as much time as we put in, at home, in practices and on the road, that’s just such an underappreciated part of being a great program.”

The Coyotes have a mixture of strong senior leadership and outstanding young talent, which seems to be just the right recipe for success.

Sophomore Allison Arens, who averaged only eight minutes a game last season, is the Summit League’s leading scorer with an average of 19.5 points per game and will surpass 500 career points with her first basket on Saturday.

Jaycee Bradley, another sophomore averaging 13.9 points, is the team’s top 3-point shooter at 66 percent. Freshman Ciara Duffy (Caitlin’s younger sister) recorded her 14th double figure effort of the season in a win at Denver Wednesday and is averaging 11.1 points per game.

Abigail Fogg, a 6-foot-4 senior, came on like gangbusters at the end of last season and has been a consistent performer all year long, contributing 9.1 points and five rebounds a game. Then there’s senior Bridget Arens, Allison’s older sister and the only player left who played on South Dakota’s 2014 NCAA tournament squad.

“The transition wasn’t too difficult,” Bridget Arens said. “Obviously it’s a very different offense and defense but I think the overall culture here at USD is very hungry. A lot of girls on the team are hungry to prove ourselves because I know at first people had some questions about what it would be like but everyone just kind of bought into the process and knew that with hard work we could be right where we wanted to be.”

Not to be overlooked has been the contributions of freshman Madison McKeever and junior Kate Liveringhouse in reserve roles. McKeever is averaging 7.6 points in 28 minutes and leads the team with 35 steals while Liveringhouse has averaged six points and 4.5 rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench in the last eight games and improved her shooting percentage from 33 to 51.4.

“What’s been an interesting aspect is that with the adversity we’ve faced (coaching change, graduated players, injuries) that has all set us up to see how are we going to react to this and our kids have done a great job of embracing it each time and finding a way,” Plitzuweit said. “That is not a typical response out of people and that’s really been a major reason why this group has been successful, they just continue to battle and embrace difficult situations and get better through them.”

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