Aaron Johnston

South Dakota State women’s basketball head coach Aaron Johnston, a Pine Island native, talks to his team during a timeout in a first-round NCAA Tournament game against Quinnipiac last Saturday at Syracuse, N.Y. Johnston has guided the Jackrabbits to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history. They’ll face Oregon at 10 p.m. Friday.

South Dakota State University is in unfamiliar territory, and it couldn’t be happier.

The Jackrabbits women’s basketball program, led by head coach and Pine Island native Aaron Johnston, is in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division I Tournament for the first time ever.

SDSU, a No. 6 seed in its bracket, advanced by beating No. 3-seeded and No. 12-ranked Syracuse 75-64 on Monday. The Jackrabbits will face No. 2 seed Oregon at 10 p.m. Friday (ESPN2) in Portland, Ore., for a berth in the Elite Eight.

The winner of Friday’s game will face either Mississippi State or Arizona State at 1 p.m. Sunday (ESPN2) for a trip to the Final Four.

Johnston was all smiles after beating Syracuse, despite suffering a swollen lip during the post-game celebration.

“It’s a great, great, great day to be a Jackrabbit,” Johnston said in Monday’s post-game press conference. “I’m so proud of what this group has accomplished and what they’ve built on over several years.

“It’s a great step for us.”

This is South Dakota State’s ninth trip to the NCAA tournament in 11 years. Its’ six-seed is its highest seed ever in the tournament and it is now 4-8 all-time in NCAA Division I tournament games.

“This is great; it’s phenomenal,” Johnston said of reaching the Sweet 16. “This is what we’ve talked about, not our end goal, but moving forward in the NCAA tournament. We’d never won a second round game, so this is a step forward and now we’re going to try to move forward again.”

The Jackrabbits (28-6) have also made four appearances in the WNIT, advancing as far as the semifinals in 2014.

Johnson is in his 20th season as the program’s head coach, with a career record of 467-155.

LONG TIME, NO SEE

The Sweet 16 is set for the NCAA Women’s Tournament, and Missouri State is crashing the party for the first time in 18 years.

The 11th-seeded Lady Bears last made it this far in 2001 behind now-assistant coach Jackie Stiles during the team’s historic Final Four run.

They are the only double-digit seed to reach the regional semifinals after upsetting third-seeded Iowa State on the Cyclones’ home court. It’s the ninth time in 10 years that a team seeded 10 or lower has reached the Sweet 16.

Missouri State had gone one-and-done in its previous four NCAA appearances.

“Wow. That was amazing,” said Missouri State coach Kellie Harper, who won three national championships as a point guard under Pat Summitt at Tennessee. “We did it our way. This is a dream come true.”

CONFERENCE DOMINANCE

The Pac-12 had five of its six teams advance to the round of 16 — the most of any conference. Oregon State will join UCLA in Albany, New York. Oregon and Arizona State advance to play in Portland, Oregon, on Sunday. Stanford rallied to beat BYU and reach the Chicago Regional.

“For five teams to be in the Sweet 16 is a great statement about our league,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “Congrats to UCLA and Oregon State. That’s awesome.”

It’s the second time in three years that the Pac-12 has had five teams in the Sweet 16. The SEC and ACC each have three teams, with the Big 12, Big Ten, American, Missouri Valley and Summit all having one team.

ATTENDANCE

Fans turned out, with no better place than Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The two-day total of 23,096 in Iowa City set a record for combined first- and second-round attendance, topping South Carolina (21,129 in 2015).

Iowa drew an average of 11,548 over the first two rounds. The average attendance at the 16 sites was 5,299 — the highest average attendance for the opening rounds since 2008.

The fans showed up to watch the Hawkeyes beat Mercer and Missouri to advance to the Sweet 16, where they’ll face North Carolina State at Greensboro, N.C., at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

In 2015, the top 16 seeds were rewarded by hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament with “the hope that the move would create a better in-arena atmosphere” and “improve attendance,” said Rhonda Lundin Bennett, chair of the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee.

FALLING SHORT

Iowa State star Bridget Carleton had 31 points in the loss to Missouri State. She finished just seven points shy of tying Angie Welle’s career scoring record at the school with 2,149 points.

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Sports Reporter

Jason has been a Post Bulletin sports reporter and columnist since 2004 and covers high school football, volleyball, softball, golf, hockey, junior hockey and auto racing. He is a 1999 graduate of the University of North Dakota.