Year two of the NSIC era had high highs and low lows for the USF men.
The Cougars looked like they’d be a pretty explosive offensive team in their non-conference games, then opened NSIC play with wins over Wayne State and Southwest Minnesota State.
But the Cougar men would quickly show that they could be really bad if they wanted to be, particularly on defense, and their struggled on that end of the court led to an early season stretch that looked like it would basically ruin their season.
USF was beaten 96-77 on their home floor by Augustana in a highly deflating rivalry performance, which was the first ouf four straight losses heading into the Christmas break.
But they whipped MSU-Moorhead 92-70 in the first game of the New Year, a team that would go on to tie for the North title and could still get into the NCAA tournament.
But three losses followed, at which point USF had lost seven of eight and fallen to 3-8 in conference play.
I pretty much left them for dead at that point. They won six of their next seven, including a big wins at home over Winona State and Bemidji State, but the one loss in that seven game stretch was a 94-53 defeat at Augustana that is probably the worst game I’ve ever seen USF play, including the NAIA era.
There was another embarrassing loss, 109-64 to MSU-Mankato, but again USF rebounded, going 2-0 on the Mary/Minot road trip, and nearly pulling off a miraculous home upset of Mankato.
They finished the regular season with a 12-10 conference record. Had they completed the comeback against the Mavericks, they would’ve finished fourth in the South — ahead of Augustana — and hosted their first round NSIC tournament game.
Instead, they had to go to St. Cloud State, where they lost 86-75, ending their season. It was a tough loss, too, because Charles Ward missed the entire second half with a concussion. He had 17 points before going down and USF may have been able to hang on to their halftime lead if he’d not gotten hurt.
Of the four Sioux Falls teams, the Cougars were the only one not to go to the Pentagon, and regardless of the succecss they had this year, that hurts.
Still, it was a pretty encouraging (if weird) season. Nobody could really figure out how a team can look so bad on some nights and then beat some of the best teams in the region on others.
The answer, I think, is that they were streaky on offense and often bad on defense. By the end of the year, they brought both of those issues a little bit more under control.
When they shot well, they were good. I didn’t see a better pure shooter in the league than Derek Brown, who used a quick release and hard-to-believe catch-and-shoot ability to shoot 47 percent from 3-point range and average 13.3 points per game. He also led the nation in free throw shooting at 96 percent (76 for 79).
Charles Ward averaged 13.6 points and 5.1 rebounds, while Mahlon Jones, Rob Goffney and Mack Johnson also had their moments. If you’d said last year that Jordan Stotts would average 9.6 points and 5.8 rebounds this year, everyone would’ve been thrilled, but after a hot start, he actually faded down the stretch and will be looking to bounce back next year. Bryan Kielpinski averaged 8.3 points and led the league in blocked shots.
I’m not sure how optimistic to be about this team going forward. Unlike Augie, they don’t have any obvious All-Conference players coming back, and most of their best players this year were upperclassmen. I think they’re going to miss Brown quite a bit. Ward should be a good player next year, but he’s just got the one year left.
Johnson looks like a guy with a real bright future, but Cutler Finneman was slightly disappointing as a freshman. Jones might be the fastest player in the league, but he’ll also have just one more year.
And Mankato, Winona and Augie should all be loaded next year. Being in the South is tough on the middle of the pack teams.
Still, for them to finish 12-10 in the league, after a 3-8 start, is definitely a positive. I didn’t think this team was going to be all that good, and when they started 3-8 I thought it had a chance to get ugly. It didn’t, and that’s a credit to Coach Chris Johnson.
As for the women, they also had a weird year. They lost seven of eight, won six of seven, then lost six in a row.
Then they beat St. Cloud State to get to the Pentagon, and then they beat top seeded, regular season NSIC champion Wayne State in front of their biggest crowd of the season at the Pentagon. I covered 9 of the 14 games at the Pentagon, and the Cougars’ win over Wayne was easily the most entertaining. It gave them a signature win not just for their season, but for the Travis Traphagen era.
The Cougars probably aren’t as bad as their 14-15 record, as evidenced not just by the two tournament wins but also the fact that most of their losses were winnable games. They probably dropped more than their fair share that could’ve gone either way.
There’s reason to be optimistic going forward, as Taylor Varsho was excellent as a sophomore. Sam Knecht won freshman of the year, Marie Malloy made huge strides from her freshman year, and players like Alicia Boe, Amber Paden and Teagan Molden were also impressive at times. Jaicee Ulmer is a strong third wheel.
"I’m excited about our team going forward," Traphagen said. "We have young players that have a lot of room to grow, and I’m excited about our incoming recruiting class. I’m happy with the way we finished the year, and I think winning these two games in the tournament gives our girls a lot of confidence."
Of course, the Cougars will have to replace Laura Johnson, who is one of the best players they’ve ever had.
The all-time leading 3-point shooter in USF history, Johnson finishes fifth on the all-time scoring list with 1,402 points, and her 770 rebounds and 123 career blocks also rank high on the USF all-time lists.
She averaged 15 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.0 blocks in her senior year.
Johnson had one of the quickest releases I’ve ever seen, and her numbers probably would’ve been even better if there hadn’t been so many games where the Cougars couldn’t find another scoring option to take pressure off her.
I’m not going to put her ahead of Courtney Farrell (even though Johnson obviously played against much tougher competition than Courtney did), but she’s easily No. 2 on my list of USF’s best women’s players. She was also one of my favorites. She’s really funny. I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a college athlete who took her/himself less seriously, and that’s refreshing.
* Speaking of USF hoops, the Gayville-Volin Raider girls, coached by former Cougar Matt Malloy, defeated Freeman 44-40 last night in overtime.
One year after going 4-14, the Raiders are going to the Class B state tournament for the first time ever.