Claudia Kunzer described it as a “sense of peace.”
The senior guard was making her first career start alongside classmates Liv Korngable, Chloe Lamb and Hannah Sjerven. They — along with Monica Arens who has been sidelined this season due to injury — have been together since 2017-18 and played pivotal roles in the Coyotes’ success over the last four seasons.
It was only fitting that Kunzer, Korngable, Lamb and Sjerven were in the starting lineup for what may have been their final home game together.
“We started this (journey) together,” Kunzer said following USD’s 81-61 win over North Dakota State. “Obviously we’re nowhere near done, but it was just really nice to be out there with them. It was a sense of peace… It was just a really cool feeling.”
Well established as South Dakota’s hype person during games, Kunzer’s role on the floor has expanded in 2020-21. As a result, the Illinois native said, she has had to make some adjustments when she’s on the bench. She still generates enough energy from to power a small town, of course, but she also has to be ready to enter the game at a moment’s notice.
Sunday afternoon, Kunzer contributed four rebounds, an assist and two steals over 15 minutes.
“Claudia played really well in this game,” coach Dawn Plitzuweit said. “She gave us some good defensive looks and really, really helped us on that end… It’s so much fun to see her play hard, play well, play with confidence. She always brings a lot of energy, a lot of juice.”
Kunzer’s first career start served as a cool storyline to an impressive overall performance by the Coyotes, who collected their sixth consecutive win and head to Sioux Falls as the No. 2 seed in the Summit League tournament.
South Dakota, which shot 43% for the game (55% in the second half), was paced by Sjerven with a game-high 24 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and five blocks. Korngable added 19 points on 7 of 17 shooting plus eight assists and five steals, while Maddie Krull and Macy Guebert both chipped in 11 points.
“Various people stepped up today and we’ve really needed that with some of the injuries we’ve had this year,” Sjerven said. “Claudia and Macy (Guebert) both stepped up big and it really showed for us. It was a lot of fun.”
The game was tied 7-7 with five minutes left in the opening quarter, but South Dakota slowly started to find its footing and take control. What started as a 10-2 run to break the stalemate (run included a 3-pointer by Jeniah Ugofsky and a 3-point play by Korngable) snowballed into a 29-11 onslaught that featured 11 points from Sjerven and left the halftime score at 36-18.
USD pushed its lead to 23 midway through the third quarter, but NDSU refused to fade. Heaven Hamling, who was held scoreless in the first half, knocked down five 3-pointers in the second half (three in the 3rd quarter) en route to a team-high 19-point performance. Her efforts helped the Bison trim the margin to 74-59 with 4:44 left in regulation.
“She’s a great shooter, a great facilitator for her team,” Sjerven said of Hamling, who scored 30 points on Saturday. “To hold her to 19 is huge…I think even that’s an accomplishment. I’m proud of us today on defense.”
NDSU also picked up 15 points and seven rebounds from Ryan Cobbins and 10 points from Emily Dietz.
As a team, the Bison shot 38% from the field (.667 in the 3rd quarter) with an 8-for-19 mark from 3. They were limited to just two fast break points after picking up 10 on Saturday.
“They were killing us in transition yesterday,” Kunzer said. “Today we did a much better job of stopping the ball and by stopping the ball, it slowed their offense down, which meant they couldn’t just go right past us. “
USD will open the Summit League tournament against No. 7 Oral Roberts on Saturday at 2:45 p.m.
Follow Brian Haenchen on Twitter at @Brian_Haenchen.