By ERIC OLSON
AP Sports Writer
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Making it to the NCAA tournament wasn’t quite as easy this time for South Dakota State.
The Jackrabbits returned to the tournament Tuesday with a 79-75 overtime victory over Oral Roberts after blowing a nine-point lead late in the second half of the Summit League championship game.
The win came against an opponent that had beaten them twice in the regular season and after a rough-and-tumble season in which the Jacks lost four of their first six games and finished third in the Summit.
Even though last season was the Jacks’ first as a full-fledged Division I member, they were expected to get to the NCAAs. They rolled through Summit League play and went to the NCAAs with a 31-2 record and narrowly missed reaching the Sweet 16.
SDSU coach Aaron Johnston praised his team’s ability to bounce back after trying times this season. That’s the mark of great teams, but Johnston said it’s too early to declare the Jacks a mid-major power.
“You can look at last year’s team as kind of that Cinderella story,” he said. “I know I don’t want to be a Cinderella story. I want people to look at us as a team that can compete every single year. Unless you do this a lot, you kind of get caught in the shuffle as one of those teams that has a great year and then gets forgotten about.”
Kristin Rotert scored 21 points and made the game-clinching free throw with four seconds left in overtime as SDSU won its second straight Summit postseason title.
Maria Boever, the tournament MVP, added 18 points and Ketty Cornemann 17 for the Jacks (22-10), who have won 10 of their last 11 games.
“We did come in as the underdog and we knew we would have to fight,” Boever said. “We’re so happy because we did fight so hard. We just didn’t give up.”
Jaci Bigham scored 28 points and fellow freshman and Summit player of the year Kevi Luper added 17 for Oral Roberts (23-9). The Eagles also got 12 points from Jordan Pyle and 10 from Janae Voelker.
The Jacks had a decisive home-court advantage playing 60 miles south of their Brookings campus.
With the exception of fans behind the Oral Roberts bench, the Sioux Falls Arena was painted yellow and blue, with some 5,400 fans chanting “Let’s Go Rabbits!” at every opportunity.
The Jacks routed IPFW 93-52 and Western Illinois 67-39 in the first two rounds, but this time they were going against the regular-season champion Eagles, who already had beaten them 81-72 in Brookings and 86-75 in Tulsa, Okla.
Oral Roberts, the only Summit League team in two years to beat the Jacks on South Dakota soil, turned up the pressure late in regulation and forced five straight turnovers to make up a 69-60 deficit.
“In the beginning we weren’t getting our hands on any of their passes,” Luper said. “When we were getting our hands on them, you could tell they were thinking twice about their passes, and that’s when we made our run.”
Pyle’s putback and Bigham’s three-point play closed the gap to 69-65, and free throws by Savanna Buck and Voelker tied it with 48 seconds left in regulation.
Oral Roberts had a chance to win it in regulation after Rotert was off the mark with a 3-pointer, but Buck missed a long jumper at the buzzer.
“We had all the momentum going,” Oral Roberts coach Jerry Finkbeiner said. “That last shot Savanna Buck missed, I thought it was in there. Three-quarters of an inch, and it might have rattled in. We had multiple chances to win. It’s easier to swallow because we were there and had a chance.”
The Jacks went ahead when Jen Schuttloffel made a steal and passed to Rotert for a layup.
Bigham scored all six of Oral Roberts’ points in overtime, hitting two free throws to get the Eagles within 76-75 with 12 seconds left.
Jill Young, Cornemann and Rotert combined to make five of six free throws in the last 20 seconds to hold off the Eagles, who came into the game with wins in 14 of their last 15 games.
“You look at our record and it doesn’t show it, but our team lost a lot of these close games early on,” Johnston said. “This game really showed a different team.”