One point — that’s all it took for the University of North Dakota to keep the University of South Dakota men’s basketball team from repeating as Great West Conference Champions after fighting for 135 minutes to defend their title.
The team traveled to Orem, Utah last week to compete in the GWC tournament, seeded as the number four team after going 1-1 in their final regular season games.
Heading into the tournament to defend their conference title, the team would be forced to play without their leading scorer, junior guard Charlie Westbrook, who was out with an injury.
Senior guard Kendall Cutler said having to play without Westbrook was difficult.
“It’s pretty tough without (Westbrook) to win,” he said. “He’s our leading scorer and a big leader on the team. We knew we’d just have to play together and we’d be fine.”
Head coach Dave Boots said despite missing one of their key players, their goal heading in was to win.
“We were trying to win the tournament,” Dave Boots said. “In order to do that, we had to shoot well, play good defense and take care of the ball.”
USD faced Chicago State in the first round of the GWC tournament. The team had defeated CSU in both regular season match-ups, most recently at the DakotaDome where they won 105-73.
The Cougars were just as willing as the Coyotes to win, as the game was a battle from start to finish. USD led only twice during the first half, each time by one point, and trailed 36-32 at halftime.
In the second half, CSU pushed to a seven-point lead, but the Coyotes fought back and tied it on a three-pointer by sophomore guard Jake Thomas. In the final two minutes of the game, USD was down three, but a layup and a free throw by junior guard Louie Krogman tied the game 65-65 with a few seconds to play. Coming up with a defensive stop on the final possession, the Coyotes forced the game into overtime.
During the extra period, USD kept CSU from scoring in the final two minutes thanks to defensive stops. Up by one, Cutler pulled down a rebound in the final seconds and scored an uncontested layup to seal the 73-71 victory for the Coyotes.
Cutler said the team’s defense is what allowed them to win the game.
“The biggest thing that we did was defend,” Cutler said. “For most of the season, we played zone defense. Coach (Dave Boots) decided to switch to man late. Everyone felt they had to guard their own man to the best of their ability which led to most of our stops.”
Thomas led the Coyotes with 20 points and eight rebounds and Cutler followed with 16 points. Krogman contributed 15 points and freshman guard Steve Tecker had a solid game with nine points, three assists and three steals.
With one win under their belts, USD faced Utah Valley in the semifinals.
“We were happy we got a win in overtime,” Krogman said. “The next game was a whole different team. Utah Valley has different plays, different players. We came out with a lot more focus and our intensity was stronger throughout the entire game.”
The Coyotes had to fight again in the next round of the tournament against Utah Valley to continue on to the championship game. UVU was the number one seed and playing in Orem, Dave Boots said it was a tough environment to play in, but his players did well.
Throughout the game, there were eight ties and 17 lead changes. The game was tied 69-69 with more than a minute to play when senior forward Mitchell Bouie put the Coyotes up by two with a layup.
After the Wolverines made a free throw, the Coyotes came up with a strong defensive stop on UVU’s next possession. Thomas went one-of-two from the free throw line and another defensive stop by USD sealed the victory, 72-70, for the Coyotes.
Dave Boots said one of the main reasons USD won was because they outrebounded UVU 39-32 and their defense was stellar.
Four Coyotes scored in double digits, as Thomas led with 21 points and also pulled down seven rebounds. Krogman finished the game with 12 points and sophomore guard Jordan Boots and freshman forward Trevor Gruis added 11 and 10 points, respectively.
The win allowed the Coyotes to continue on, facing North Dakota in the championship game. USD fell to UND in both regular season games.
“After losing both times to UND, we were confident we could win this one,” Krogman said. “They posed a lot of problems to our game, but we created some for them, too. Before the game, we were confident we could play a good game.”
Regulation and an extra five minutes were not enough as it took two overtimes to decide which team would be the GWC Champion.
During regulation, the Coyotes were down six with more than a minute to play, but a layup by Jordan Boots and a three-pointer by Thomas cut the Sioux’s lead to two. Cutler had another big play for USD as he scored a layup in the final 35 seconds to tie the game 50-50. The Coyotes were able to get a defensive stop on UND’s final possession, sending the game into overtime.
The Sioux built an eight-point lead but the Coyotes went on a 13-5 run to tie the game 65-65 and send it into another overtime. Jordan Boots and Thomas each hit three-pointers during the run, but a last-second trey by Krogman was the tying basket.
In the final seconds of the second overtime, it looked as though USD would come out with a win and another conference title as the team led 76-72. UND wasn’t ready to give up, however, and the Sioux scored on a layup and three-pointer to take a one-point lead over the Coyotes. USD was unable to convert on a last-second attempt and fell 77-76 in the championship game.
Cutler earned another career-high in scoring as he led the Coyotes with 24. Krogman followed with 17 and Thomas added 11. Bouie contributed 10 points and eight rebounds while junior forward Ricardo Andreotti earned a career-high 17 rebounds.
Dave Boots said the team had opportunities to win, but he was pleased of how his team finished the season.
“We made some really good plays down the stretch,” he said. “We made great plays at the end of regulation and the first overtime to stay in the game. In the second overtime, we made plays that gave us a good chance to win but we couldn’t get it done. I’m proud of the effort the guys made.”
Being a senior and playing in his last game, Cutler said losing to UND was not how he had hoped it would end.
“It was difficult to go to two overtimes and not come out with a win,” Cutler said. “It was the last game of the season and the last game ever for me. It’s not the way I wanted to go out but it was a good tournament and a great three games.”
Krogman said he was proud of his teammates and how hard they battled to win the games they did.
“We’re a team that battles and we’re scrappy,” Krogman said. “We don’t back down. Teams should never count us out. I’m lucky to be on such a great team.”
USD finished their season with an 18-15 record, the 23rd straight winning season for Dave Boots. Cutler was named to the GWC All-Tournament Team for his outstanding performance during the tournament. Westbrook earned All-GWC First Team honors as well as GWC All-Newcomer team, while Krogman made All-GWC Second Team and Thomas received honorable mention.
In their final regular season games before the GWC tournament, the Coyotes traveled to Texas to compete against Texas-Pan American and Houston Baptist.
Against UTPA in the first game down in Texas, the team fell 75-74, as the Broncs were able to convert on a last second layup after Krogman had put the Coyotes up by one with a three-pointer.
USD had battled back from a 12-point deficit to take the lead with 12 seconds remaining in the game. The Coyotes had trailed by five at halftime and had battled back many times during the game to stay close.
To start the second half, UTPA went on a 13-4 run after USD had cut the lead to three points, but the Coyotes fought back. Westbrook scored six points as the team went on an 18-6 run to tie the game 67-67. It was close from there on out, but USD was unable to get a defensive stop in the final seconds.
Cutler led the team, earning a career-high 22 points. Krogman followed with 18 and Westbrook added 12.
After a day to recuperate, USD traveled to Houston to take on HBU. With fire behind them, the Coyotes came out strong and defeated the Huskies 96-87.
Krogman shot lights out, tying USD’s record for the most three-pointers in a game with 10 and finishing with a career-high 37 points. Four other Coyotes scored in double digits, including Thomas who added 14 and Tecker had 12. Westbrook and Cutler each contributed 11 while Cutler also had a game-high eight assists.
The Coyotes were up just four at halftime and the Huskies cut the lead to one with eight minutes remaining in the game. USD gained momentum and went on a 20-8 run where Krogman drained four three-pointers. The lead never fell below nine points after that.
Reach reporter Cassie Bartlett at Cassie.Bartlett@usd.edu