SDSU head coach Scott Nagy said it felt like a dream. But the 6,526 fans in the Sioux Falls Arena and many more around the nation can attest that it’s not: The Jackrabbits are going to the NCAA Tournament.
Senior Griffan Callahan drilled a 3-pointer from the wing with slightly more than a minute to go and the Jackrabbits held on to win the first Summit League championship with a thrilling 52-50 overtime victory over Western Illinois March 6.
The drama mounted all night, with SDSU rallying from 10 points down in the second half to come back and tie the game with two made free throws by Callahan.
They then sent it to overtime when Ceola Clark’s jumper went wide as regulation time expired with the score tied at 44.
For South Dakota basketball fans, among the last in the nation to send a team to the Big Dance, the finale to a tense and stomach-churning game came from the Jackrabbits’ heart and soul.
Western Illinois played the game precisely for its lockdown defense, considered by stats and reputation as the stingiest in the Summit League. The Jackrabbits shot 35 percent in the first half and then only worsened that clip with a 28 percent performance in the second half.
But SDSU got stops when it counted, holding Western Illinois without a basket over the final 4:19 of regulation while cobbling together enough offense to close the gap with pairs of free throws from junior Nate Wolters and senior Griffan Callahan.
The back and forth continued into overtime when SDSU’s Chad White hit a three-pointer to move the Jacks ahead 49-48 with just under three minutes left. Obi Emegano then put WIU ahead 50- 49 on a layup with 2:04 left. At crunch time, Callahan had the final say.
“The main thing was to stay positive,” Callahan said. “They just told me to jump up and shoot with confidence. We weren’t going to stall and if you get an open look, knock it down and that’s what I did.”
“We weren’t good offensively because of how good they were defensively. We stayed in the game because we defended and we’ve been preaching that all year,” said Nagy, who moved to 5-3 in Summit League tournament play.
It is the crowning achievement of Nagy’s 17 years. The coach has won 316 games and was there for each of the tough years during the Division I transition. For those who stuck with the Jackrabbit men, the victory is all that much sweeter.
“I haven’t had very many times in my life where I felt like I was dreaming. It was surreal,” Nagy said.
On the biggest stage the Jackrabbits have ever played on, the statement of the defensive turnaround was exemplified with the Jacks holding WIU to just 50 points.
“It was the focus coming off of last year and it kept us in the basketball game,” Nagy said.
“We just kept getting stops and tried to get a shot to fall and Griff hit a couple of huge ones,” said Wolters, who finished the game with 14 points and tournament MVP honors. Callahan was the only other Jackrabbit in double figures with 10. For the Leathernecks, one win short is tough to take.
“This was a road game,” WIU head coach Jim Molinari said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making excuses. But I think you have to be 10 points better to win here and we weren’t tonight. I knew because of the crowd that they would never let the game get away from them.”
The crowd made a difference in the final minutes, making it difficult to hear late in the game and then making their mark afterward, with SDSU’s students rushing the floor at the final horn.
“It’s still soaking in and it probably will for a few days. It should be a lot of fun, (the) first in school history,” Wolters said.