Monson: Tragedy, losing streaks, injuries and brutal cold have brought South Dakota State together

First Published      Last Updated Mar 15 2017 07:30 pm

It's easy to feel affinity for a team like the South Dakota State Jackrabbits — for all kinds of reasons.

They aren't exactly playing on Broadway.

They're playing in Brookings.

They aren't playing big-brand ball.

They're playing in the bushes.

Brookings — if you don't know it … and you don't — is a small Mount Rushmore State town where agriculture is king, at least when the fertile ground isn't frozen like granite, when the wintertime temperatures aren't dropping to minus-40 and the wind isn't tearing the skin off the players' faces.

"It's cold as sin there," said A.J. Hess, a senior wing who started 63 games at Southern Utah before transferring. "It's crazy cold."

But when the environment gets harsh like that, the ball warms up and the fans show up to watch the Jacks play in Frost Arena, where anywhere from 4,00 to 6,000 patrons gather. It's a proud, if anonymous tradition. The Jackrabbits have been playing the game for 114 years now.

And here, their basketball will have to be brilliant for them to have any chance on Thursday, when the 16th-seeded team from the Summit League will face No. 1-seeded Gonzaga in the first game of Salt Lake City's portion of the NCAA Tournament's West Regional.

Everyone knows, including the Jacks, that no 16 has ever beaten a one. Said Hess: "We're just going to come out and try to execute our game plan as best we can, really compete and fight. It might be destiny, I'm not going to say it's destiny, but it might be. … It's going to be exciting, regardless."

Plentiful are the reasons to pull for these guys, beyond the fact that almost everybody loves the underdogs in this tournament, everybody wants to see the little guys shock the world. Everybody but the favorites and their fans and the folks who don't want their brackets torn to shreds. It is, however, what makes March Madness mad.

The Jackrabbits have all those virtues that make them compelling. They are a team that faced down adversity in multiple forms this season, foremost among them, there was an early stretch when they stunk. They couldn't beat anybody, except for Wayne State. They lost six of seven games to start the season, falling to outfits like Cal and UC Irvine twice and Wyoming and Idaho. They tried to play man defense, and couldn't. They switched to a 1-3-1 zone, and couldn't do that, either. When their league season started, they lost five of their first six games. Their zone looked like a bullfight, with the opponents being the bull and the Jacks being the guy in the funny suit, waving a cape. It got so bad, they switched back to man.

South Dakota State also suffered a load of injuries, spinning players in and out of roles to which they had to adapt. One player dislocated an elbow, another blew his ankles. Another, Micheal Orris, played with a broken heart, forced to do his best while mourning the death of his brother, Billy, who was killed in a motorcycle accident while riding to the store to pick up a cake for Michael's 21st birthday.

Michael now has tattoos on his arms and chest, and a different written message on his shoes for each game, honoring Billy's memory.

"His brother's dream was for Michael to play in the NCAA Tournament," junior Reed Tellinghuisen said. "It gives me goosebumps how we made that dream come true for him and for his brother …

He paused for a moment.

" … This is the closest, most together team I've ever been on."

The Jackrabbits did what they had to do — they turned to one another, leaning on teammates not just to win games, but to carry those greater burdens. And … it worked. They discovered a way to win, and they carried on, finishing strong.

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