BROOKINGS, S.D. -- The first night of Notre Dame's first road trip of the season found coach Muffet McGraw standing somewhere other than the kind of cavernous arena her teams so often inhabit at the end of seasons. Instead she watched over practice in what, a video board suspended above the court notwithstanding, could be best described as an old-school basketball barn.
Asked why the third-ranked team and one of the sport's flagship programs had flown its charter to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, then bused another hour to this gym in a state in which the entire population is not much more than double that of the South Bend metro area, McGraw stared out at the court, offered a close-cropped smile that bordered on a grimace and shook her head a couple of times.
The technical answer, when it came, was that the Fighting Irish needed to fill a schedule hole on short notice two years earlier. South Dakota State proved willing to make the trip to South Bend that season, as long as its opponent returned the game. Now that debt was due.
Yet her initial reaction suggested that, philosophically, the question remained a conundrum even to her.
An answer came the next day. After Notre Dame earned a 75-64 victory in which McGraw said it was so loud at times that she couldn't even hear herself in huddles, she asked to speak to the crowd over the public address system. In 34 seasons, it was a first for her after a road game.
"I wanted to thank them, first, for coming out and supporting their team but just for coming out and supporting women's basketball. It was a fun place to play." Irish coach Muffet McGraw, who spoke to the crowd after the game
"I wanted to thank them, first, for coming out and supporting their team but just for coming out and supporting women's basketball," McGraw said of her brief words to the largest regular-season crowd, 5,532, to attend a stand-alone women's game at South Dakota State. "It was a fun place to play -- well, it wasn't really fun, I have to say. The end maybe was fun."
The people who call this area home will tell you there is more to it than empty map space. What is clear is that in the decade since South Dakota State began to compete and thrive at the Division I level, Frost Arena -- which regularly draws crowds that rank in the top fifth of Division I women's games -- is anything but the middle of nowhere in women's basketball.
Even if that paradoxically makes it is somewhere many schools aren't willing to venture.
"It's just really exciting, knowing that such a great program is willing to come to South Dakota," Jackrabbits sixth-year player Gabrielle Boever said the day before the game. "We're just a mid-major -- we're a great mid-major, but getting a Big Ten, SEC, ACC, all these big conference schools to come to SDSU, or us go there, it definitely gets our name out there."
And so the day that mighty Notre Dame came to Brookings, the day Frost Arena played host to a top-five opponent for the first time, wasn't really about the visitor or its victory at all but instead about what was already here.
Geography and population ultimately have little to do with an athletic department's place on the college sports map. Alongside the likes of South Dakota State, schools such as Fordham and Loyola Marymount toil as mid-majors in the midst of New York City and Los Angeles, respectively. And yet this landscape, where grain elevators stand sentinel above train tracks at one end of downtown, invokes a sense of outsider status.
Never one to pass up an opportunity to accentuate a point, Mother Nature underlined the point. The season's first winter storm swept across parts of the Upper Plains the day before the game. Driving westward on Interstate 90, fall gave way to winter around Worthington, Minnesota, a town about an hour from the state line. Objects a few yards on either side of the road faded into indistinct shapes. Two lanes of asphalt vanished but for narrow tire tracks, like wagon ruts. That Brookings itself was spared the foot of snow that fell nearby, the northern edge of the system just missing the town, only made it feel that much more a world apart.
Growing up on a farm near Worthington, Boever loved nothing more than when the outside world faded away under snow like that. Even now, long winters are not something she endures but instead something to savor. It made for a wonderland back then, the huge piles of snow her dad's tractor collected turned into tunnels and forts. Winter was not an indoor season.
The middle child of 11 siblings, she also grew up with basketball as the center of family activity. To escape chores, she tagged along with her dad and any older sibling involved in a tournament on a given weekend (one older sister, Maria, went on to be a standout at South Dakota State). By the time it was her turn to play, Boever was infected. Playing YMCA ball in grade school, she would game the numbering system in place to ensure everyone received equal playing time. She made sure she had the number that meant she would be on the court when it mattered.
When she suffered a torn ACL early in her senior season in high school and then fractured the same kneecap five months later, Boever sat out her first season in Brookings but came back. She subsequently started at point guard for two seasons and two NCAA tournament bids, but then tore the ACL in her other knee prior to last season and applied for a sixth season of eligibility. And when the coaches told Boever she was welcome but likely wouldn't start or play point guard anymore, she became a backup power forward every bit as undersized as her path suggests.
So it was that with fouls accumulating across the front line in Saturday's game, Boever found herself at times guarding Notre Dame's Brianna Turner, a 6-foot-3 pogo stick of All-American potential. Late in the third quarter, when South Dakota State trimmed a double-digit deficit to four points and reignited the crowd, Boever grappled for defensive position for much of the shot clock, only to see the ball lobbed over her head for a Turner layup. No matter. On the next possession, Boever drove into a crowd of Fighting Irish bodies and earned two free throws.
This isn't about scrappiness substituting for talent. After Macy Miller scored 31 points in a win against Arkansas this past week, Razorbacks coach Jimmy Dykes said the sophomore guard would be an all-conference pick in the SEC. McGraw, too, offered Miller a few extra words after the latter led all players with 23 points in Saturday's game. The box score wasn't as kind to Jackrabbits freshman Madison Gaubert, but the former prep player of the year in Minnesota and a top-100 recruit didn't look out of her depth at all. Even Boever, though she deals with achy knees every morning, was a decorated high school player whose name is easy to find in South Dakota State's record book.
"We're just a mid-major -- we're a great mid-major -- but getting a Big Ten, SEC, ACC, all these big conference schools to come to SDSU, or us go there, it definitely gets our name out there." South Dakota State guard Gabrielle Boever
South Dakota State wasn't as quick, big or deep as Notre Dame. Neither is much of the ACC. But there is talent in Brookings, complemented with coaching and a sense of identity that is never stronger than inside the walls of an old gym. Ranked teams from Nebraska and Penn State discovered that when they lost here in recent seasons. It makes it harder, coach Aaron Johnston lamented, to convince teams to come.
Asked when she was a high school freshman about her aspirations, Boever replied that she wanted to play at Tennessee, one of the programs whose games she and her dad studied like scouts. She was asked how she felt instead about a scholarship offer from South Dakota State.
Her answer is why it's worth the trip up here.
"I definitely dreamed of going to this big glamorous school that is in the big conference," Boever said. "But I couldn't have been happier with where I ended up."