Mascara was running this past March, when she stared at the media assembled in a room at the Denny Sanford Center. Tears had been shed; the kind that flow when dreams of an NCAA Tournament appearance have been dashed.

Nicole Seekamp, star of the South Dakota women’s basketball team, had just been named the Summit League tournament MVP—the second time she’d received that honor, despite losing in the tourney’s championship game. That mattered little, now. Seekamp thought her collegiate career would end without a second trip to the Big Dance.

Even though she had only played three seasons of college basketball, Seekamp was listed as a senior. After participating in organized amateur competition in Australia, following her high school graduation, the NCAA had docked her a year of eligibility, and forced her to sit out a year before she could play for South Dakota. You know. Logic.

So this loss rankled a bit—that it came to South Dakota State, USD’s fierce in-state rival, was more salt in the wound. Seekamp says she still gets mad when she thinks about it. The Coyotes (pronounced ki-YOATS) hadn’t played to the potential that had seen them crowned regular-season conference champs.

“And I wasn’t ready to make real-life decisions,” Seekamp says, before waiting a beat and chuckling. “Just kidding.” She wanted a final “final” season, so after USD bowed out in second round of the Women’s NIT, Seekamp and the USD compliance office launched a concerted appeal of the NCAA’s initial decision. The university submitted a waiver, and in mid-April, it was approved by the NCAA—on condition that Seekamp serve a two-game “withholding” at the start of the upcoming campaign.

The news rifled through the state, and galvanized the fanbase. Not only was one of the country’s best players coming back, she was doing so with a competitive edge chiseled from unfinished business. South Dakota’s athletic director, David Herbster, attested to this once the ruling was announced. The school moved forward with its appeal for one big reason: Seekamp really, really wanted to make this final season count.

***

Seekamp has excelled ever since she stepped onto the court for USD. Two-time First Team All-Summit League (she was named honorable mention as a redshirt-frosh), three-time all-tournament team, and those two tourney MVP’s in tow. Three times named to the conference commissioner’s List of Academic Excellence.

Versatility is her calling card. It accentuates heavy helpings of skill, and an incredible capacity to step up her game in the biggest moments. Like at the 2014 NCAA Tournament, when USD faced No. 2-seeded Stanford, an eventual Final Four team, and Seekamp dropped 22 points on 9-13 shooting.

seekamp_1

In ’14-15, she started 34 games, and finished with 15.6 points, 5.1 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals—in just 28.8 minutes per game. Had her career ended last March, her final contribution would have been a long, last-second jumper, in that 59-58 loss to Northern Colorado in the WNIT, ruled a two, instead of a three.

Amy Williams, USD’s head coach, didn’t recruit Seekamp, but since she took over in 2012, the Aussie has been on each of her teams. Williams can’t think of a more versatile player she’s coached. “She is a true point guard, and she’s kind of a different weapon at that position,” says Williams. “She can shoot the three, attack the basket, post up smaller guards—or go with her mid-range game, which is what I think sets her apart. She’s played minutes at the 1, 2, 3 and 4 for us. She just makes special plays at both ends.”

She’s not the most dominant athlete, but she’s efficient with what she has. That’s a standard take on Seekamp, who in a vintage display of humility, readily agrees with the assessment. “I don’t have the athleticism of some of these girls I’m playing against,” she says, “but in Australia, we find something that gives us an edge. For me, it’s my IQ.” From the time she was 10, Seekamp has been running pro-level drills. At the heralded Australian Institute of Sport, she played against older competition.

There is also a background in netball—think, hoops without dribbling or backboards—which helped hone her decision-making (by the way, she posted a 2.01 assist-to-turnover ratio for USD in ’14-15), but put simply, Seekamp has been balling since she was 5. She’s just got game.

Within her first few weeks of working with Seekamp, three years ago, Willians noticed when she’d sidle over to give pointers during practice, Seekamp could already finish her sentences. An intuition that sparks like a light switch, and it will come in handy in ’15-16, when USD cycles seven newcomers—five freshmen, two transfers—into the lineup.

This is yet another reason why Seekamp’s extra final season of eligibility could prove vital. “With Nicole, it’s like having an extra coach,” says Williams. “This summer, when we’ve put in something new during practice, she’ll take the new kids under her wing, and give them pointers. Nicole has a shot at the program’s all-time scoring record, but some of our coaches say that the newcomers will be the biggest benefactors of this extra year.”

***

Several captaincies of youth Australia national teams, and this stirring success at South Dakota. From her mom and brother, Seekamp got her game. From pops: ebullience. When she gets the chance to walk about Vermillion, site of USD’s campus, she’ll stop and chat with locals. That’s one of the things she loves most about this place. The laid-back nature reminds her of home.

Makes sense, in a way. Just as the name Vermillion evokes the red of the Coyotes’ uniforms, Seekamp’s South Australia home of Renmark is derived from an aboriginal word for “red mud.” Something about this pairing of player to place has always fit. Something about this final year of eligibility, too.

As they handle the hype, the Coyotes will stick to the program motto. GRITT: Greatness Resides In Toughness Together. “That’s our slogan for this year,” says Williams. “We want to be the hardest-working team. We’re not afraid to get down and dirty.”

And should a rematch occur with South Dakota State, in a championship setting next March? Seekamp gives another chuckle. She’s heard some wild stories about this rivalry, from years past. In one of the games she played in, she some SDSU fans shouted that she should get put on a boat and sent back across the Pacific.

Seekamp couldn’t help but give a little laugh. Then, she kept playing. And doesn’t she do it well.

Photos courtesy of South Dakota Athletics.