Nate Wolters has always valued team success above individual accolades, so it's certainly no surprise the South Dakota State star was more enthusiastic about his team's comeback victory than his own scoring barrage.
"It was a must-win to stay atop the conference," Wolters said. "If we lost and I scored 53, it would not have felt good at all."
South Dakota State's rally from an 11-point deficit certainly boosts its Summit League title hopes, but the story from the Jackrabbits' 80-74 road win at IPFW will undoubtedly be the way Wolters lit up the scoreboard. His school-record 53 points are the most this season by a Division I player, bettering a 47-point performance by Oakland's Travis Bader on Jan. 24 against IUPUI.
Although Wolters has averaged 19 or more points per game each of the past three seasons, the 6-foot-4 guard has never shown the ability to score like this. Not only was his previous career high 36 points against North Dakota State as a sophomore, he also never eclipsed 40 points as a high school star in rural Minnesota.
"The most in high school I had was 39 a couple times," Wolters said. "I've never done anything like this."
It didn't look like it was going to be a night to remember for either Wolters or his team at halftime. He had 15 points on 5 of 12 shooting and South Dakota State (19-6, 10-2) trailed by eight against an IPFW team with only three league wins.
When the deficit ballooned to 11 two minutes into the second half, Wolters said he felt as though it was up to him to shoulder a greater scoring load and try to bring his team back. Utilizing mostly high ball screens, he scored back-to-back layups and a 3-pointer to cut the lead to six, took a brief break, then continued his barrage, scoring on five straight possessions, each time to tie the score.
Finally, with 1:47 remaining and South Dakota State down two, Wolters hit a deep 3 to give the Jackrabbits their first lead since 9-8 early in the first half. He followed that up with another 3-pointer before icing the game and surpassing the 50-point mark with four free throws in the final minute.
Wolters finished 17 of 28 from the floor, 9 of 14 from behind the arc and 10 of 11 from the foul line, a remarkably efficient performance for someone asked to carry so much of the scoring burden. Thirty-eight of his points came in the second half on spectacular 12 of 16 shooting from the field.
"The second half, I was able to get some easy looks to start the half and get in a rhythm," Wolters said. "Toward the end, I was hitting some really difficult pull-up 3s. They were sagging off me a little bit to stop me from driving and I was able to shoot over them. They didn't really try anything different defensively the whole second half, which kind of surprised me. I was able to get comfortable and knock shots down."
Wolters' nine 3-pointers are noteworthy because the one knock on his game last season was his surprisingly poor 24.1 percent shooting from behind the arc, an area he worked diligently to improve this offseason. With a revamped stroke and renewed confidence, Wolters is shooting 37.4 percent from behind the arc this season, including 16-for-27 in his past three games.
Up next for Wolters is a visit to Oakland and a showdown with Bader, whose scoring mark he surpassed Thursday. Of course, Wolters was less interested in discussing that matchup and more interested in describing his team's improvement.
Preseason Summit League favorite South Dakota State, which dropped two of its first three conference games, has since reeled off nine wins in a row to tie Western Illinois atop the standings.
"We're got off to a rough start and we've had a ton of must-win games to stay in the league race," Wolters said. "I think that will help us coming down the stretch here and when we get to the conference tournament. We feel we're ready for the intensity of March play."
If Thursday night's box score is any indication, Wolters is certainly ready.
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