Updated: December 16, 2013, 12:40 AM ET

Jackrabbits sprints past No. 12 Penn State

By Graham Hays | espnW.com

Megan Waytashek, South Dakota StateSouth Dakota State University AthleticsMegan Waytashek and South Dakota State (8-4) have won four consecutive games.

Megan Waytashek watched more basketball during her first two years at South Dakota State than she ever had before or likely ever wants to again. As injuries separated her from the court for the first time in her life, all she could do was sit and watch. Game after game after game.

As Wednesday night crept toward Thursday morning, watching a game was all she wanted to do. Over and over again.

No matter that the final exam period began the next day for Waytashek, a mechanical engineering major, and others at the school in Brookings, S.D., an hour north of Sioux Falls and four hours west of Minneapolis. Those headaches could wait a few hours more. She just wanted to keep watching scenes from South Dakota State's 83-79 victory against No. 12 Penn State from earlier that night, the one in which she had 18 points and eight rebounds in 31 minutes. The one in which she was in the middle of the celebration at the final buzzer.

To get a win like that in Frost [Arena], it just helps put our program on the map.

-- South Dakota State's Megan Waytashek

It sometimes seems that upsets like these come out of nowhere. There is a lot more to them than that.

"All of us girls were all smiles after the game," Waytashek recounted over the weekend. "It's hard to describe how much fun it was out there. We have a little highlight reel after the game, our coaches always put that together, and I think I watched that about five times before I went to bed. I couldn't stop watching it. It was just so cool.

"And it was such a cool moment to share with Frost Arena."

South Dakota State is no stranger to making life difficult for programs from more affluent basketball neighborhoods than the Summit League. Five seasons ago the Jackrabbits spent much of the campaign ranked in the Top 25 and lost by two points against Baylor in an NCAA tournament second-round game. Last season they beat then-No. 15 Nebraska in Brookings. But in nearly a decade as a Division I program, they had never beaten a team ranked where the Lady Lions were ranked as they made their first visit to the state.

In a season-opening loss at BYU, South Dakota State trailed by 16 points at halftime and lost by an even bigger margin. In a loss against Stanford at a tournament in Mexico over Thanksgiving, it fell behind by 21 points at halftime, a deficit that made its one-point advantage in the second half inconsequential. The Jackrabbits fell behind again against Penn State -- for all of 32 seconds. By halftime, they led 55-35.

They shot 51 percent from the field in the half, including 50 percent on 16 attempts from the 3-point line, and held a 25-16 edge on the boards against the bigger Big Ten team.

"We just came out early with so much intensity," Waytashek said. "For the years I've been here, I think that's one of the games where we've come out with so much intensity and fire."

It helped having her on the court. While Penn State's Maggie Lucas struggled through more fouls than field goals in the first half, Waytashek totaled 17 points before the break, more than double anyone else.

[Coach Aaron Johnston] was just telling us to … play within our roles, because when we each individually play within our roles, that's when we play the best as a team.

-- Megan Waytashek

A rare top-100 recruit for the Jackrabbits (HoopGurlz ranked her No. 81 in the same class that included Lucas at No. 36), Waytashek played just 22 times over her first two seasons. An ACL tear midway through her freshman season sidelined her just as she worked her way into the starting lineup.

She was back on the court by the third game of the following season but scored just 13 points in six appearances, the return complicated by bone bruises. Instead of trying to play on as what she feared would be a shell of herself, she took a medical hardship season and watched some more. Only last season did she finally arrive as one of the Summit League's best players.

Penn State made its run in the second half, too good a team to simply fade away. From a deficit of as many as 23 points early in the second half, the Lady Lions cut the margin to single digits with nine minutes to play, to four points with 2:22 to play and one point with 1:17 to play.

But they never pulled even. What Waytashek was in the first half, Steph Paluch was with 11 points in the second half, or Tara Heiser and Clarissa Ober were as reserves who totaled 10 rebounds between them after halftime. As their own shooting faltered and the lead shrank, the Jackrabbits didn't panic.

"[Coach Aaron Johnston] was just telling us to be aggressive and play our game but to play to our roles, not to try to do too much just because they're Penn State," Waytashek said of the second half. "Play how we know how to play. Play within our roles, because when we each individually play within our roles, that's when we play the best as a team."

Even if some of those roles were a long time coming.

An 87-82 victory against Central Michigan on Sunday, not an opponent any team with tired legs or distracted minds would relish facing, brought a wildly successful week to a close. But if Waytashek or any of her teammates wanted to sneak a few more looks at the highlights from Wednesday, who could blame them.

"To get a win like that in Frost, it just helps put our program on the map," Waytashek said.

To find it, just go west from Minneapolis or north from Sioux Falls. Those who toil there are worth watching.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

Comebacks completed

Jeff JudkinsAP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJeff Judkins' BYU Cougars won nine straight to open the season before losing Saturday.

South Dakota State found just enough in reserve to stop Penn State short of an epic comeback, but that seemed less the rule than the exception over the past week.

BYU helped produce espnW's player of the week by surrendering a lead against Utah, but that was just a matter of a few points. What the Cougars did earlier in the week was history, even if not a lot of people pay attention to history made on a Tuesday night in Ogden, Utah.

Down by 24 points with 17:41 remaining in the second half, and still down by 13 points with five minutes to play, BYU rallied for a 90-85 win at Weber State. The 24-point turnaround was the fifth-biggest in NCAA women's basketball history.

It would have been the biggest comeback ever if we still lived in a world of "The West Wing" on first-run television and "Wedding Crashers" in movie theaters. Texas State set the all-time standard when it rallied from 32 points down in the first half against UTSA on Feb. 18, 2006 (it also trailed by as many as 30 points in the second half in that game).

Until that effort, the record was 22 points. Curiously enough, all four instances in which a team rallied from a deficit greater than that faced by BYU against Weber State occurred in the past seven years.

By comparison, Illinois erasing a 20-point deficit against Seton Hall on Monday looks almost pedestrian, but that, too, ranks among the 20 biggest comebacks.

All the more impressive was that the Illini trailed by 20 points with as little as 8:45 remaining in the game and actually drew level with almost a minute to spare before Nia Oden's free throw with four seconds left provided the final margin in a 71-70 win.

Clearly, leads of 20-plus points aren't what they used to be.


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