The night before its 70-65 victory at No. 16 New Mexico on Saturday, South Dakota State took a bus ride from Nashville, Tenn., to Albuquerque. The cross-country trek, the final leg of a 10-day road trip, wasn’t planned but was crucial in the Jackrabbits' win over the Lobos.
South Dakota State was crushed by Belmont 76-49 on Wednesday night. Its Thursday morning flight to Chicago, where it was scheduled to fly to Albuquerque, was canceled due to weather. So the Jackrabbits were forced to ride 1,200 miles and spend more than 20 hours together on a chartered bus.
Instead of bonding, they grew tired of one another.
“I honestly think we played pretty angry today,” said Nate Wolters, who finished with 28 points, seven assists and four rebounds. “We’ve been on the road for 10 days. ... Our practice yesterday got a little chippy too. I think people were sick of each other. It worked.”
Wolters led the way for the Jackrabbits, which shot 48 percent (24-for-50) from the field. That mark helped them overcome 18 turnovers.
Coach Scott Nagy said he told Wolters that he’d pull him early if he continued to hobble on the ankle he injured earlier this month. Wolters entered the game shooting 14-for-46 in his last three games after missing the two prior matchups due to the injury.
Wolters responded to that conversation, Nagy said, with one of the most emotional performances of his career.
“He knew that if I saw what I kept seeing, I was going to sit him down,” Nagy said. “He was saying things I’ve never seen him say before, and that’s what we need from him. ... He was yelling at guys. He was telling guys to shoot the ball when they were open. ... He was yelling at me. He doesn’t normally do that stuff.”
That edginess led to the program’s first win over a ranked team, coincidentally at the site of its first NCAA tournament appearance. The Jackrabbits suffered a 68-60 loss to Baylor at the Pit in the opening round of last season’s tourney.
South Dakota State had been hyped entering the season, the result of its run to last season's NCAA tourney and Wolters’ emergence. But the Jackrabbits rarely looked the part of a sleeper throughout their lengthy road trip.
With Wolters’ slump and the team’s collective struggles, they hadn’t even looked like the favorite to win the Summit League entering Saturday’s game (see: North Dakota State).
“It was a rough road trip, but this makes it a lot better,” Wolters said.
The team’s travel nightmare also offered some relief, Nagy said, before a significant matchup against a New Mexico squad that hadn’t lost at home (and entered the game undefeated) since suffering a 75-70 loss against San Diego State on Jan. 18.
“We didn’t watch film on the bus. We didn’t do any of that. Once we got there, that’s when we started preparing,” Nagy said. “Maybe, quite frankly, sometimes you overcoach and maybe you need to just go play the game. ... Sometimes it’s better.”