The bus ride from Butler back to Aberdeen, S.D., takes about 16 hours, and it’s about twice as long as any of the road trips Northern State usually endures. But even after having trouble sleeping after playing three games in as many days, Alex Thomas wasn’t complaining about the never-ending trek toward home -- not after hitting a buzzer-beater to beat Butler.
The Wolves were supposed to be sacrificial lambs in this exhibition game, but Thomas' 3-pointer at the top of the key lifted Northern State to a 53-50 win on Wednesday, stunning the two-time national runner-up at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The game didn’t count in the standings, but the Division II team’s emotional celebration made it difficult to tell.
“Right when it left my hands, it was a great feeling,” Thomas said. “We were going crazy. We stormed the court, jumping and hugging. In the locker room, the coaches were going crazy.
“One of the highlights of my life.”
Northern State is the place where in the last decade, Don Meyer became the all-time leader in coaching wins in NCAA men’s basketball history. Meyer accumulated 923 wins in 38 years before retiring in 2010, two years after a near-fatal car accident left him without a leg and led to a discovery of cancer.
Paul Sather, who coached under Meyer and succeeded him, now has a win that won’t show up on the coaching record, but will be an unforgettable one. The Wolves were 12-14 in his first season and picked 10th in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll. Last night, they went into Hinkle and lived out their “Hoosiers” fantasies.
“It was kind of surreal,” Sather said. “It was like, ‘This isn’t really happening.’
“Butler’s the kind of program we try to be like. They’re a program we would love to be like.”
Northern State is accustomed to playing on back-to-back nights, yet realized scheduling consecutive exhibitions against Northern Iowa, Purdue and Butler was going to be a difficult test for its preseason. Northern Iowa beat the Wolves by 18 points, and Purdue routed them by 32.
But a relatively inexperienced Butler team in transition following its national championship game loss to Connecticut played sloppily in its first contest and was primed for an upset. Northern State went into halftime tied and trailed by nine points with five minutes to play, but came back. Collin Pryor, who led the Wolves with 18 points, tied the game with back-to-back baskets with 52 seconds left. When Butler’s Andrew Smith missed the front end of a one-and-one, it gave Northern State the final possession of regulation.
The 6-foot-5 Thomas elevated over two defenders, got a clean look and made Butler pay. The fifth-year senior had redshirted during Meyer’s 29-win season in 2008 and went through a coaching change. The mere sight of Butler coach Brad Stevens was “a great experience” to Thomas. Now he was celebrating a shot that beat the Bulldogs, with the Wolves having improbably scored the game’s final 12 points.
“To make this shot in that environment on that stage, you couldn’t script it any better for him,” Sather said.
“Alex was the guy that was coming off bench most of his career. He fought and fought and continued to fight.”
Sather received a call following the game from Meyer, who recognizes a big win when he sees one.
“He called me disguised as an ESPN beat writer,” Sather said. “That’s him being funny.
“With that environment and the history and tradition there at Hinkle Fieldhouse, to get that kind of win, it hasn’t really set in yet.”