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It’s time to talk about South Dakota’s Matt Mooney

Maybe he shouldn’t be overshadowed.

NCAA Basketball: South Dakota at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

There’s something about South Dakota’s Matt Mooney he can’t help. Something that’s simply not his fault.

He’s not Mike Daum.

Mooney has never scored 50 points in a college basketball game. He didn’t lead the country in scoring last season, and he’s not the sport’s very own urban legend. Sharing a conference, let alone state, with a player like that has, get ready for the cliche, put a shadow on the Coyotes’ junior star.

But Mooney and USD didn’t take a backseat to Daum and South Dakota State in the teams’ first meeting of the season on Wednesday night. With first place in the Summit at stake, the Coyotes blasted SDSU in a 19-point win. Mooney (30 points, 4 assists) helped fuel an 18-3 run early in the second half that stretched USD’s lead out to as many as 25 points.

It was an anti-climatic sequel to the thriller the last time the teams played.

USD and SDSU met in the semifinals of last year’s Summit Tournament in a sold out, jet engine of an arena in Sioux Falls. Mooney scored 30 points in that game as well, and his final basket looked like it might be the biggest of his career. The then-sophomore ended up in a heap in the corner after drilling a contested three with 34 seconds left to give the Coyotes a 74-71 lead.

But then Daum happened, making two free throws on the Jacks’ next possession, before SDSU’s Michael Orris won the game on a jumper in the final seconds. It ended the Coyotes season, sending a team that had won its first regular season title home without its first NCAA Tournament appearance.

USD coach Craig Smith talked about how that ending affected his team shortly before this season began.

“It’s a fun team to be around, we have high-character guys, high-achieving guys,” Smith said this week. “The way the season ended last year was very bittersweet in that we won the league – that was sweet – but very bitter in that we didn’t get to the NCAA tournament. Our guys have a bit of a chip on their shoulder right now. It’s been easy to see throughout the summer and in the fall.”

The Coyotes lost first team all-league forward Tyler Flack to graduation, but returned another first-teamer in Mooney. The Air Force transfer exploded in his first year at USD in 2016-17, playing a key role on the perimeter in USD’s league-best defense, while stuffing the stat sheet (18.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 36.7 3P%).

In many leagues, owning a season like that would make you the preseason player of the year. But again, Daum happened, and the man-who-would-be the Summit headliner coming into this season “merely” landed on the preseason all-league first team.

Like USD, he hasn’t disappointed.

The Coyotes are yet again playing great defense, ranking 42nd in the country in KenPom defensive efficiency. Mooney often draws the one of the opponent’s better perimeter scorers in Smith’s man-to-man scheme, while leading the team in scoring on the other end (17.9 PPG).

USD traveled to UMKC in late November, playing a team that had beaten it the year before. He scored 30 points that night, helping the Coyotes break open a game that had been tight near halftime. Roos coach Kareem Richardson was impressed with what he saw.

“Mooney’s a heck of a player,” Richardson said after the game. “He’s really improved from last year, his body looks better. He’s stronger, he’s more physical. You have to tip your hat to him. He made some tough shots but that’s what a good player does.”

While Mooney’s scoring average has dropped slightly, he’s been more efficient both at the free throw line and from beyond the arc. And he remains a dangerous offensive player without the ball, coming off of screens and putting himself in good positions as well as any player in the country.

He’s also been forced to facilitate more this season after starting point guard Trey Dickerson transferred to Georgetown in the offseason. Triston Simpson has stepped in and had a solid season, but Mooney has also chipped in, increasing both his assists per game average (3.0) and assists rate (20.4%) this season.

On Wednesday against SDSU, it was Mooney finding Simpson for a key three early in the game, and not the other way around.

“I saw a fantastic shooter (Simpson) wide open,” said Mooney. “I just had to deliver him the ball and he did the rest of the job. I felt we did a good job as a team sharing it tonight. Guys stepped up and made open shots. Triston had a career night tonight and in a big game, he was ready to go.”

There are more big games on tap for USD this season, including the return game in Brookings on Feb. 22. If the Coyotes win the biggest of them all in the Summit Tournament, it’ll no doubt be because of Mooney and, Daum or not, it’s time we start talking about him.