Jan. 26—GRAND FORKS — It's been nearly 17 years since UND defeated South Dakota State in women's basketball. That win came in March of 2004 when both were Division II programs. Granted, the teams haven't played each season during the Division I era but the times the Hawks and Jackrabbits have played, South Dakota State dominated — winning by an average of 20 points per game.
South Dakota state is the king of the Summit as the Jacks have won the league title nine times and have played in 10 NCAA Tournaments, comprising a 4-10 record and reaching the Sweet 16 in 2009.
UND is in its fourth season in the Summit. Its body of work hasn't been overwhelming — two 6-10 league seasons and a 2-13 mark last season.
This season, however, is different.
UND has been the surprise of the Summit this season. The Hawks, who were picked ninth in the preseason poll, are 6-3 in the league and have won six straight. The buzz is back at The Betty for the program as well.
But this weekend will be UND's biggest test since joining the Summit. Can the Hawks take down South Dakota State and South Dakota — the two undisputed powers of the league? Can they make a legitimate statement that the program will be a contender going forward? Can they somehow play on the big stage occupied by the Jacks and the Coyotes?
UND hosts SDSU on Thursday and South Dakota on Saturday. If Thursday isn't tough enough, South Dakota enters the weekend with the nation's longest winning streak at 14 games.
"Well, this is as big as it gets," said UND coach Mallory Bernhard. "Everyone knows that the South Dakota schools are the measuring stick of the league. And both teams are playing incredibly well.
"SDSU won by an average of 52-and-a-half points last weekend. They shot 65 percent from the field and 50 percent on three-pointers and didn't miss a free throw all weekend. And South Dakota has the nation's longest winning streak. So, if you want to talk about a tough weekend, this is as tough as it gets. But that doesn't mean our team isn't locked in."
SDSU ranks fourth in Division I shooting (47.5 percent) and seventh (38.4 percent) in 3-point shooting. And the Jacks have held opponents to 50 or fewer points in their past four games. It gets better for SDSU as all five starters are averaging 10 or more points in league games.
UND hopes that the confidence and poise it's played with the past six games will be a factor as will a boisterous home crowd.
"I think our fans are excited about it," said the UND coach. "Our fans definitely make a difference and we need all the edge we can get against these two really tough teams."
SDSU beat UND 72-54 on Jan. 1. However, UND's play in that game, said Bernhard, helped set the tone for the six straight wins that followed.
"The streak started that game," said Bernhard. "Yes, we lost but the way we played and the way we started to establish the way we're capable of playing came from that game. So I do think there is a level of excitement to get back to that game knowing how far we've come in the last 20 days."
UND' streak has been led by junior point guard Kacie Borowicz, who has become one of the best players in the league. She leads the league in scoring (18.8 ppg) and ranks second in NCAA Division I free-throw shooting. Her ability to score and get to the line down the stretch has made the Hawks a difficult team to beat.
"Everyone knows how good they are," said Borowicz of the Jacks and Coyotes. "But I think we're a very different team than a month ago. We've improved on a lot of things. I'm excited to see how we match up after getting some wins and more confidence under us.
UND and SDSU both have the same overall record at 12-8. The Jacks are 8-1, their only loss to South Dakota.
The Summit is at the halfway point of the league season.
The fact that South Dakota SDSU are a combined 17-1 is not a surprise. UND's 6-3 mark is the surprise of the league.
It's a huge weekend for UND, but it's not a defining one.
"The streak is exciting," said Bernhard. "Yes, we want to keep it going. But at the end of the day, we're worried about getting better. We want to get to Sioux Falls (for the Summit postseason tournament) and give ourselves a chance down there. And that's been the same message when we started 0-3 and when we're 12-8. Let's improve every day. Let's get ourselves to Sioux Falls and see what we can do."