"If you're not up for this game, then you're not going to be up for any game."
That is a direct quote from South Dakota State head men's basketball coach Scott Nagy, a statement made in the closing moments of practice the day before their highly-anticipated matchup with Summit League leader, Oral Roberts, on Thursday.
None truer words could have been spoken, and his players responded in a big way.
Entering the game trailing the Golden Eagles by two-and-a-half games in the standings, the Jackrabbits came out of the gates swinging, taking an early advantage of 15-2 in the opening minutes. That early lead would signify the beginning of the end for Oral Roberts, as they couldn't mount any sort of comeback, eventually dropping the game all together, 75-60.
To put this game into perspective, Oral Roberts entered the game with a 20-4 overall record, 12-0 in conference play, a ranking of 11 in the latest collegeinsider.com mid-major poll and an average 74.5 points per game as a team.
South Dakota State played, quite possibly, their best all-around defensive effort of the season. The 60 points Oral Roberts scored in the game was their lowest point total all season. The Jackrabbits forced 15 turnovers, using a combination of physical play and tenacity by cutting off passing lanes, picking the pocket of the opposition and diving on the floor for loose balls.
These are the qualities that make up a great defensive effort, and that's exactly what SDSU got out of its players in the game.
On the offensive end, it was a rather stagnant shooting night from the three-point line for both teams, combining to go 9-of-34 from beyond the arc—SDSU 6-21, ORU 3-13. When the three ball wasn't dropping, the Jackrabbits saw their opportunity to penetrate the lane and get easy buckets, while also getting their three big men involved in any way they could.
Junior guard—and national sensation for those who know who he is—Nate Wolters led the game with 24 points, using a combination of his smooth shooting stroke, quick, crafty dribbling skills and explosive bursts to the rim to garner much of the attention from the Oral Roberts defense.
Once the Golden Eagles found Wolters creating offense for himself, they focused their attention on him, allowing Wolters to create offense for his teammates and to tally nine assists for the game as well.
Wolters' favorite target of the game was forward Jordan Dykstra, who came up with 22 monster points from all over the floor, also forcing his way to seven crucial rebounds.
Five other Jackrabbits scored in the contest, the highest point total of those five being eight points by Chad White. While it may appear to be a little lopsided in point distribution, each player who stepped on the floor during this game knew his assignment and had no issue doing the dirty work, reaping all the benefits of the win in the process.
For Oral Roberts, the 20.2 points per game they usually get out of their star forward Dominique Morrison were nowhere to be found, as he only tallied 12 total points for the game and fouled out of the game late in the second half.
Credit has to be given to SDSU for shutting down Morrison, as they did not want a repeat of their trip to Oral Roberts in early January. In that game, Morrison had a career-high 38 points, going 5-of-8 from the three-point line in the Golden Eagles' 97-75 victory.
Overall, the Jackrabbits proved that they can compete with anybody in the Summit League, now handing Oral Roberts their first conference loss on the season. They have also split the season series with Oakland—they would have swept that series had it not been for an insane three-point shooting night from Travis Bader, who hit a school-record 10 threes in their 92-87 victory last week—and defeated North Dakota State 91-88 in overtime in Fargo two weeks ago.
This win is significant because it is also a confidence booster as the Jackrabbits head towards the home stretch of the college basketball season.
A win of this magnitude dictates that it is no longer a one-horse race for the Summit League championship. Rather, it has now become one of the hottest conference races in the country.
Both South Dakota State and Oral Roberts have nationally-televised Bracketbuster games on February 18th against Buffalo and Akron, respectively. For both teams, this is their lone opportunity to show the selection committee that, come Selection Sunday, whomever doesn't win the conference tournament at the beginning of March should not be overlooked for an at-large bid for the big dance.
February is shaping out to be a big month in the Summit League, especially for South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits are looking to continue their winning ways and stake their claim as a threat come tournament time.
Coach Nagy hit the nail on the head with his statement before the Oral Roberts game.
"If you are not up for this game, then you are not going to be up for any game."
Now, the Jackrabbits need to take that mindset into the rest of the season if they want to achieve their goals of winning the Summit League championship.
The Oral Roberts game was merely step one.