Handing New Mexico its first loss on its home floor would have been special for South Dakota State under any circumstances.
Saturday's 70-65 victory is even more memorable for the Jackrabbits, however, because of everything they endured getting to Albuquerque.
The morning after Wednesday night's discouraging 76-49 loss at Belmont, South Dakota State players awoke in their Nashville hotel at 4:30 a.m. and boarded a bus to the airport in hopes of boarding a flight to Albuquerque with a layover in Chicago. Snow and wind in Chicago cancelled that flight and the Jackrabbits could not find another one with sufficient seats for their entire party, so they chartered a bus and began a 1,200-mile drive to Albuquerque instead.
South Dakota State left Nashville at 2 p.m. EST, spent Thursday night at a hotel in Shawnee, Okla., and arrived Friday evening in Albuquerque in time to get through a quick hour-long practice. It was a 27-hour journey, yet it was clearly the Jackrabbits who appeared to have the fresher legs and greater will to win Saturday afternoon.
"The one thing we told them is we would not allow them to use the travel as an excuse for us not to play well," South Dakota State coach Scott Nagy said. "We watched the Belmont film last night, and it was not good, and our kids knew it wasn't good. They wanted to play better today. We didn't have a lot of preparation time, but the kids really responded."
If the motivation from the Belmont loss helped South Dakota State overcome its fatigue, the reemergence of star guard Nate Wolters certainly didn't hurt either.
Wolters, who shot poorly his last three games as he recovered from an ankle sprain, regained his stroke against the Lobos, scoring 28 points on 9 of 15 shooting and dishing out seven assists. His 3-pointer with 4:49 left in the first half gave South Dakota State its largest lead at 35-23, a surprising score made all the more astonishing by the Jackrabbits' travel horror story.
"I told Nate right before the game, 'We're going to start you but if you look like you did in the Montana and Belmont games, I'm going to sit you down,'" Nagy said. "I think that helped him get off to a good start. He really pushed himself. He had a lot of juice today, physically and emotionally. He was more fired up than I'd ever seen."
New Mexico had won six games decided by single digits during its 12-0 start, so its a testament to South Dakota State that the Lobos weren't able to pull off a comeback.
Kendall Williams scored 21 points and Tony Snell added a quiet 13, but New Mexico got little interior production. The Lobos shot only 37 percent as a team and never got closer than four points the entire second half.
South Dakota State's victory was the first sign the Jackrabbits may be capable of living up to their preseason hype as a potentially dangerous mid-major in March. Although South Dakota State is clearly the class of the Summit League again this year, the Jackrabbits had squandered their other opportunities against major-conference competition, falling to Alabama by three and to Minnesota by 22 (without Wolters).
It's easy to envision the New Mexico serving as a springboard into conference play, especially since South Dakota State had a similar win last December at Pac-12 champion Washington. Much like this win came after a blowout loss to Belmont, that game came after a bad loss to North Dakota.
That game sparked a run of 18 wins in 21 games, culminating in a Summit League tournament title and an NCAA bid. South Dakota State can only hope the win at New Mexico has a similar impact.
"The expectations are a lot higher for us this year from our standpoint, but we just haven't played great all year," Nagy said. "We haven't shot the ball like we thought we would and we haven't played with the same passion. This win can certainly help us because we did have passion and fire. I think our guys saw how that affected us."