Mandy Koupal and a South Dakota teammate from nearly two decades ago didn't want to jinx it, but as the Coyotes were closing in on their upset of Baylor and first appearance in the NCAA Sweet 16, the two started planning a road trip.
Koupal and Stacy (Schooley) Hendricks will be riding in a caravan of vehicles from the Mount Rushmore State to Kansas for the Wichita Region semifinal, where the 10th-seeded Coyotes (29-5) play No. 3 seed Michigan (24-6) on Saturday.
“We have the motto at USD, ‘It’s always a great day to be a Coyote,' ” Koupal said Wednesday. “But when stuff like this happens, you have to admit you feel extra bounce in your step. You're so excited to see how far the program has come going from D-II to where it’s at today.”
Koupal has lived the South Dakota women's basketball experience. She was a two-time Division II national player of the year (2003 and ‘04) and remains the school's all-time leading scorer. She was a graduate assistant and assistant for four of the five years the Coyotes were transitioning to Division I.
She's now a schoolteacher and assistant on the girls high school team in her hometown of Wagner, South Dakota. She also has stayed on top of things going on on campus in Vermillion.
“You see how special a team they are — the passion, the positive energy from everyone,” Koupal said. “Whether it’s the five on the court — the way they play with heart and have this humble confidence about them — or the bench. It’s almost as fun to watch the bench as it is the game because they’re so into it and good vibes are flowing. How could you not be rooting for them?”
The Coyotes have nine players with at least three years' experience and South Dakota is in its fourth straight NCAA Tournament and fifth overall in its 10th year as a full Division I member. The Coyotes shot 56% from the field while beating seventh-seeded Mississippi 75-61 in the first round. They held second-seeded Baylor to its lowest point total since 2015 in an eye-catching 61-47 win, which ended the Bears' streak of 12 straight Sweet 16s.
“They play basketball the right way, and they're just a solid team," said university president Sheila Gestring, a South Dakota native who played basketball at Sioux Falls College and went to graduate school at USD. "On campus, everybody is excited, and so is the alumni, the community and the state. The buzz has been really, really fun."
Making it especially fun is the close connection between the team and fans. USD has an enrollment of just under 11,000 in Vermillion, population 12,000, in the southeast corner of the state. The Coyotes led the Summit League in attendance, just ahead of their rival 115 miles to the north, South Dakota State.
SDSU also has had high-level success in women's basketball, becoming the first Summit League team to make the Sweet 16 three years ago. Gestring said she hopes even SDSU fans, at least some of them, will root for the Coyotes for at least one weekend.
“They did the same thing back in 2019," Gestring said, "and it brings a great deal of pride to our state overall when our programs are thriving.”
Four Coyotes players are from the state and eight others are from neighboring Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa.
With the growth of AAU summer programs, Koupal said, high school basketball is played at a level that belies the fact South Dakota ranks 46th in population at just under 900,000.
Fifth-year senior Chloe Lamb, the Summit League player of the year, is from the central South Dakota farm town of Onida, pop. 740. Freshman Kyah Watson, who led a defensive effort that limited Baylor All-American NaLyssa Smith to a season-low 10 points, is from Rapid City on the west end of the state.
“The state of South Dakota has done a great job of providing opportunities for girls to really establish their game,” Koupal said. “You find hard-working kids who spend a lot of time in the gym or in their driveway at home. They just have a ball in their hands and want to get better and enjoy the sport.”
The Coyotes' success in women's basketball dates to regular appearances in the Division II tournaments in the 1980s and again in the early 2000s. They played for the Division II championship in 2008, losing to Northern Kentucky.
“It started in the Division II era, and the great thing is that our alumni have been really, really special in terms of supporting us into the Division I era,” sixth-year coach Dawn Plitzuweit said. “It’s a big moment for everyone that’s involved in our program.”
Gestring said she hopes for at least 2,500 fans at 15,000-seat Intrust Bank Arena this weekend. More than 1,200 tickets had been sold through the USD ticket office as of Wednesday, and students can get free tickets and a ride on a charter bus.
“We're particularly loud fans, so it sounds like there are more of us than there are sometimes,” Gestring said, laughing. “I think there's going to be quite a following.”
More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP—Top25