LINCOLN — Kelly Stewart remembers the shock in South Dakota’s locker room after the Coyotes lost in the finals of the Summit League tournament. USD had just lost to rival South Dakota State for the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The league didn’t get a second bid. So South Dakota was headed for the WNIT. For a team that had finished 28-6 — and 28-4 with its starting point guard, Nicole Seekamp, in the lineup — it wasn’t an easy pill to swallow.
But South Dakota coach Amy Williams didn’t let her team wallow too long in sorrow. She put it to a stop, immediately, in the first practice after the loss to SDSU.
“The first drill of practice, we were making some mistakes,” said Stewart, a senior guard for USD. “So she stopped the drill and said, ‘This looks like a team that just wants to be done, that’s still thinking about the loss, that hasn’t refocused, that just wants to get knocked out in the first or second round and go home. We need to shift our goal here!’ ”
The Coyotes did that — and then some. Playing their best basketball of the season, they ripped off six straight wins, knocking off Power Five conference teams Minnesota and Oregon in the process. The run, which culminated in a WNIT championship win over Florida Gulf Coast, was the biggest moment in the program’s history.
USD Athletic Director David Herbster traced the 32-6 season back to strong chemistry forged by five seniors and their leader, Williams, who had been in Vermillion for four seasons.
“Some teams always seem to be closer than others — internal chemistry,” Herbster said. “And you had a team here that genuinely loved each other. They had each other’s back. And that started with Amy Williams.”
Williams was especially good coaching this year, Stewart said. Throughout the year, she held meetings about respect and relationships — unrelated to the season. She told her players she wanted to communicate better with them, even though, Stewart said, Williams was already a good communicator. Stewart said the level of detail in game planning was high. Williams and her staff watched so much film, Stewart joked, she wasn’t sure how much sleep they got.
The team actually started the season 0-3. In season-opening losses to Utah and Northern Iowa, South Dakota didn’t have Seekamp— the eventual Summit League player of the year — because of an NCAA ruling. Upon her return, USD lost 84-81 to Kansas State in overtime. If the Coyotes had won any of those games, there’s a chance they make the NCAA tournament.
As it is, they finished 32-3 the rest of the way, with losses to Final Four participant Washington, Oral Roberts and SDSU.
In the WNIT, South Dakota opened with a 74-68 win over Creighton. The Bluejays led at half and had a 53-52 lead in the fourth quarter before Stewart hit a 3-pointer to give USD the lead for good. In round two, South Dakota traveled to Minnesota and outscored the Gophers 101-89, then back home to beat Northern Iowa 51-50 after the Panthers missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer. USD’s final three games were among their best of the year, Herbster said, especially a WNIT semifinal win over Oregon, an 88-54 rout.
“We beat the tar out of them,” Herbster said.
Then came the WNIT title game. A packed house inside the DakotaDome and a crowd of 7,415. South Dakota controlled the start of the game, rarely trailed and won 71-65.
Afterward, as the team celebrated by cutting down the nets, Williams was the last person on the ladder. She cut down a net, swung it above her head and beamed.
Nebraska used a picture of that moment to announce Williams’ hiring.