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The Rules of the Game

Cinderella’s Diary

Championship week with the NCAA Tournament-bound South Dakota State Jackrabbits

Saturday, March 3, 7:37 p.m. — Quarterfinal vs. IUPUI — Pregame — Sioux Falls Arena

They say this winter’s been kind here in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, but as the layered and red-faced masses file into the arena, they have to strip off their overcoats to reveal their blue and gold. This is basketball’s role in this state: a temperature-controlled diversion during the calendar’s harshest months. Tonight everyone has come to see the South Dakota State Jackrabbits — the pride of the state, the closest thing South Dakotans have to a big-time team — as they begin their quest for a Summit League title.

The Jacks have never made the NCAA tournament — in fact, no men’s team from South Dakota has ever made the NCAA tournament — and word around town says this is the squad to get it done. They have a bona fide star (Nate Wolters), and they have shooters (Brayden Carlson and Jordan Dykstra), and they have hell-raising hustlers against whom opponents hate to play (Griffan Callahan and Tony Fiegen). On the bracket, they’re the second seed, just behind 26-5 Oral Roberts. But the bracket can’t account for the drunk and chest-painted students or the sweatered and screaming octogenarians, all united in support of the Jacks. Technically, this is a neutral site. In reality, that’s a lie. And although this tournament is a national afterthought, in Sioux Falls, about an hour south of the Jackrabbits’ home in Brookings, they’re calling it the biggest sporting event the state has ever had.

Inside the SDSU locker room, the Jackrabbits players sit scattered around — some in chairs, some on the floor, some in the dented metal lockers to which they’ve been assigned. Of the 10 players who dress for games, eight are tall Midwestern white guys with short hair colored somewhere between brown and blondish-brown. The lone exceptions: Taevaunn Prince, who is black and from Toronto, and Tony Fiegen, who is a tall Midwestern white guy with short hair colored somewhere between red and ruby red.

Jordan Dykstra, a 6-foot-8 all-conference forward, sits in a folded-out chair, checking scores from other games on his phone. Elsewhere, power conference teams are finishing the regular season — jockeying for seeding, struggling to make themselves pretty in the selection committee’s eyes. Dykstra takes a look at the score of the Duke-North Carolina game. “Duke’s losing by 18,” he announces.

Seated nearby, freshman guard Zach Monaghan bolts upright, a look of exaggerated bewilderment on his face. To no one in particular, he asks what, on this night, in this arena, seems like a perfectly reasonable question.

“Who is Duke?”


Madness doesn’t officially begin until mid-March, but in the early days of the month, at gyms in Hartford and Missoula, Macon and Hot Springs, scenes like this one unfold. Freshmen twitch; seniors sit silent, aware that in 40 minutes their careers could end. This year, 308 of the 345 teams in Division I entered postseason play with a theoretical chance at the national championship. Still, the late-season reality for mid-major conference powers can be cruel. Even after a season of league dominance, their tournament hopes hinge on winning a single-elimination event. But for South Dakota State, which fell just short of a regular-season title, the conference tournament is a chance to erase past failures.

As tipoff approaches, head coach Scott Nagy sits in the team meeting room, head buried in his iPad, reading and playing Sudoku. Nagy is nervous in these moments, but he avoids thinking about the game. He trusts his players and his preparation. To ease the sickness in his stomach, he seeks distraction, not focus.

Nagy accepted the SDSU coaching job when he was 28 years old. It was an unthinkable opportunity for a coach so young, a chance to lead a perennial power. Well, a Division II power, at least. Despite playing at a low level, the Jackrabbits have always enjoyed wide fan support. “We’re a little state,” says longtime fan Jeff Svennes. “We don’t have much, as far as this stuff goes. In South Dakota, Jacks basketball is it.” After winning at least 20 games in nine of Nagy’s first 10 years, the Jackrabbits transitioned to Division I in 2004-05. They flopped. While the women’s team won 21 games in its first D-I season, Nagy’s men won 10. The next year, they won nine. In 2006-07, the program hit rock bottom. Two players were charged with rape (both were acquitted). The team won six games, its lowest total since 1944-45. After one particularly ugly loss, Nagy lambasted his squad in the press conference, calling players out and saying he believed he’d lost his team. Afterward, fans called for his head, and Nagy thought he might be fired. But the administration stuck with him, and the next year, the Jackrabbits improved. Season after season, they kept improving, until they wound up here, with Nagy sitting in the locker room, confident that after three more games they’d be bound for the NCAAs.

“I don’t know what it is,” Nagy says moments later, with the team sitting before him ready to take the court. “But being here today has been really emotional for me. I’ve just been thinking a lot about where this team has been, where this program has been. None of you guys were here when we were really in trouble, but I think about the guys who were. I’ve been to the bottom with this program. You guys have a chance to take us to the top.”

Nagy and the assistants launch into reminders on defensive strategy. After a few words on when to switch on screens, Nagy pauses. “I want you to play like you’re loved,” he eventually says, in what will become a theme for the week. “Play freely. Love isn’t dependent on your performance. No matter how you play, you are loved. Play with that in mind.”

Nagy calls the players forward. Everyone puts a hand on a teammate or a coach, and they sit or stand or kneel for a minute in silence, heads bowed. Nagy often prays that his players will ignore his harshest words, that they’ll know when to pay attention and when to tune him out. But for now, he says nothing, keeping his prayers to himself. After nearly a minute, he breaks the silence. “OK,” he says. With that, they take the court.

8:41 p.m. — Quarterfinals vs. IUPUI — Tip-off

Supposedly, there are two players with NBA futures on the court tonight. Alex Young, IUPUI’s 6-foot-6 swingman, is ranked no. 41 on Chad Ford’s top 100 prospects. Nate Wolters, the Jackrabbits’ point guard, is projected by DraftExpress.com as a second-round pick in 2013. But tonight, only Wolters looks the part.

Because he is white and doe-eyed with few defined muscles, Wolters gets tagged with labels like “sneaky quick” and “deceptively athletic.” And because he is quiet and reserved, he is often called “humble.” He may not boast or preen, but there is little humility in Wolters’ game. He plays with a confidence that borders on reckless, approaching each possession with the knowledge that he can blow by you or shoot over you. He is both bulldozing and balletic, running directly at defenders until they stumble, freeze, or simply move out of his way. When a team spreads its defense to defend shooters, like IUPUI does tonight, Wolters darts through the gaps and assumes total control.

A native of St. Cloud, Minnesota, Wolters didn’t receive a Division I scholarship offer until SDSU approached him just before his senior year. Although he later picked up an offer from Colorado State, Wolters nearly chose to play at Division II Augustana College. “I always thought I was a D-II guy,” he says now. “I just didn’t see myself as a Division I player.” Now a junior, Wolters is eighth in the nation in scoring, with 21.3 points per game. He’s also 16th in the country in assists and second in the conference in steals. Nagy says he regularly fields calls from “NBA people” about his star, and another Summit League coach told reporters he’d recently discussed Wolters with Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. A basketball obsessive, Wolters often goes to the Jackrabbits’ gym around midnight to shoot alone for a couple hours. Sometimes during team meetings, he sits on the front row with a ball in his lap, rotating it in his hands while Nagy speaks. “It really is like he has an addiction,” Nagy says. “It’s compulsive with him. He doesn’t feel right if he’s away from the basketball.”

Tonight, Wolters helps the Jacks assert control early, leading them to a 12-point halftime lead. Things look good as the players retreat for rest in the locker room, but when Nagy addresses the team, he preaches caution. “That’s a team full of seniors over there,” he says of IUPUI. “They are not going to go quietly.”

Actually, the Jaguars go down with a whimper. Young continues to struggle, Wolters continues to dominate, and Carlson and Prince both hit double figures to cap a 77-56 win. Afterward, there are a few isolated whoops and good jobs in the locker room, but the mood is mostly subdued. “I love where we are defensively,” Nagy says. “We whipped ‘em. We took a guy who’s supposed to be in the NBA and held him to 10 points.”

“Now we just have to go play,” he adds. “The first game is the hardest.”

Sunday, March 4, 10:56 p.m. — Film room, Sheraton Hotel

After watching no. 6 seed Southern Utah eliminate no. 3 Oakland and Reggie Hamilton, the nation’s leading scorer, the SDSU players walk back to the hotel amid celebrations by their fans. Oakland handed SDSU one of its three conference losses this season, but the Jackrabbits swept SUU. To the fans, at least, the road to the NCAA tournament looks like it just got a little easier.

Nagy and the assistants corral all 10 active players into a meeting room for a late-night film session. They had expected to play Oakland, but Nagy decided against breaking down the Golden Grizzlies earlier in the day, fearful that if Southern Utah won, the lopsided prep time would send a bad message to the team. He was prescient, it turns out. So with the Southern Utah scouting DVDs ready and the fans still cheering outside, Nagy asks an assistant coach to close the door.

“I’ve gotta be honest — I’m pretty annoyed right now,” he says. “Out there, we’ve got fans celebrating like the whole thing is over. I’ll tell you the truth: I wanted to play Oakland. Now I’m trying to get you guys away from the fans, because they’re out there acting like this is a party.”

Assistant Rob Klinkefus speaks up: “It just got a hell of a lot more physical.” Each of the three assistants is assigned to scout various teams throughout the league, and Klinkefus is the SUU expert. The Thunderbirds are efficient and slow-paced brutes. They’re never pretty, but the team is among the best rebounding and defensive teams in the league.

The Jackrabbits run few set plays. Nagy’s philosophy is to recruit talented offensive players, teach them motion offense principles, and then trust that they will score. Typically, 80 percent of preparation time is spent on defense. Tonight, the Jackrabbits re-watch the entire Oakland-SUU game, Klinkefus breaking down the Thunderbirds’ many sets, and then around 12:20 they pack it up and head to bed.

Monday, March 5, 6:52 p.m. — Locker room — Semifinal vs. Southern Utah — Pregame

After watching the first half of the semifinal between Oral Roberts and Western Illinois, the players and coaches enter the locker room. “I’m less emotional today,” Nagy says, beginning his pregame remarks. “Today is just about basketball. You guys already have enough information in your heads. You know everything you need to know.” Like many of his speeches, this one comes in short bursts, each thought buffered by a pause. “Enjoy it tonight,” he says. “This is why we play right here, games like this.”

When Nagy finishes, the players get dressed. There are gonorrhea jokes and farts — “At least you know they’re loose,” student manager Austin Miller says — and discussion of the fact that a fan mentioned betting $250 on the game. “What’s the spread?” someone asks. The Jackrabbits are favored by 12.5. One player speaks up: “That’s going to look really dumb when we win by 30.”

Meanwhile, Griffan Callahan, the team’s lone senior, sits in the back corner, eyes fixed on the wall, his expression showing a combination of excitement and dread. Callahan’s nerves are not of the vague, pit-in-your-stomach variety. No, his jitters center around something tangible and easily named: Jackson Stevenett. Every night, Callahan is charged with stopping the other team’s best player. For the Thunderbirds, that’s Stevenett. An undersized forward, Stevenett is nimble and skilled, capable of scoring against bigger defenders in the post. When Stevenett gets the ball on the block, Callahan knows, he will never pass. It’s Callahan’s job to make sure he doesn’t score, either.

Callahan plays a game of pure sadism, all predicated on his ability to punish opponents for their mistakes. Leave him open behind the arc, he’ll make you pay with a 3. Forget to box him out, he’ll fly by you to the glass. Have the nerve to drive against him, and he’ll force you to places you’d rather not go, whether to your weak hand or directly into the help defense. Last night, he shut down Young, the supposed future pro. There is joy in defense, Callahan feels, a certain satisfaction in bending someone’s will to match his own. Callahan claims to be the school’s all-time leader in fouls, though that stat can’t be confirmed. “He has a meanness to him,” Nagy says of Callahan. “There’s a certain nastiness on the court that you just can’t teach.” Callahan grew up with older brothers. “I was the brunt of a lot of force as a kid,” he says. “I started carrying that into the way I play. If they beat me up at home, I’ll beat other people up on the court.”

7:57 p.m. — Oral Roberts vs. Western Illinois

Like most of the Jacks’ top players, Jordan Dykstra has shown little emotion this week while watching other teams play. But as Dykstra stands near the tunnel, peeking over security to see the final seconds of the night’s first semifinal, he allows himself to be a fan.

Western Illinois leads 54-53, but Oral Roberts has the ball with less than 10 seconds left. If the Leathernecks hold on to win, it will be the biggest upset of the tournament. “They’re gonna break my heart,” Dykstra says. “Oral Roberts is going to score here, and I know it.”

Instead, the Golden Eagles fail to get a shot off. The pro-Jackrabbits crowd celebrates the Leathernecks’ win, but even though the upset helps SDSU’s chances, Dykstra has already moved on by the time the buzzer sounds. He waves his arms, calling his teammates to line up alongside him so they can take the court. As the Oral Roberts players trudge off the floor, jerseys untucked, eyes downward, hands on heads, the Jackrabbits take their place. There is a new favorite in the Summit League.

8:34 p.m. — Semifinal vs. Southern Utah — Tip-off

There are dots of red in the crowd, but if you look around, just like last night, the arena is painted blue. Of the 6,448 people here tonight, at least 6,000 support the Jacks. As the game tips, chants of “Let’s go Rabbits!” echo across the court.

Wolters grabs the tip, takes the ball straight to the basket, and is fouled four seconds into the game. He hits both free throws for a 2-0 lead. After a Southern Utah bucket and a few scoreless possessions back and forth, Wolters launches a 3. He hit 41 percent of his 3s as a sophomore, but this year, as a junior, Wolters shot only 24 percent. “I just never really got into a rhythm,” he told me earlier in the week. This one bounces off the rim and the glass before falling in. He grins on his way back down the court. Tonight, for Wolters, it seems everything is working. A couple minutes later, Dykstra adds another 3 to make it 8-2. Though he’s a post player, Dykstra leads the conference in 3-point percentage at 49 percent.

Callahan has locked up Stevenett early on, but about four minutes into the game, the Thunderbirds’ star gets out on a fast break and rises for a layup. When he lands, however, he crumbles to the floor with an ankle injury. After a brief timeout, Stevenett retreats to the locker room. He will not return. With SUU’s star gone, the Jacks’ path to the final has been cleared.

Only it doesn’t look that way. The Jacks retake an eight-point lead but then go stiff, giving up easy points on putbacks and allowing SUU to hang close. Just like Klinkefus, the assistant coach who scouted SUU, warned, the Thunderbirds look like a vastly more physical team. The Jackrabbits appear disjointed and lost — out of sync on offense, out of position on the boards, prone to defensive lapses and unnecessary fouls. After his initial burst, Wolters goes quiet. It is plain to see that South Dakota State is the more talented team, but it’s even plainer to see that Southern Utah is outworking them. The halftime buzzer sounds with the Jacks clinging to a 28-27 lead.

7:50 p.m. — Halftime — Locker room

And now the yelling starts. “Grow some fucking nuts and box the fuck out!” It’s Callahan, the senior, berating the lowerclassmen. Adopting this role wasn’t easy for him — he’s more comfortable when silent, like he was before the game — but now that the leadership duties are his, he relishes the part.

Dykstra, a sophomore, interjects with further warning. “The longer they hang around,” he says, “the more they have hope. We have an opportunity. We have to make the most of it.”

Callahan resumes command. “Just man the fuck up and box the fuck out!” They are all seated, no one pointing fingers, everyone waiting and yelling or listening while the coaches meet in the hallway.

Nagy and the assistants walk in. “I’m not gonna yell and scream,” he says. “You’re men. You know you’re getting whipped out there.” He continues: “We have three offensive rebounds. Did we not talk about that before the game? Was that not a point of emphasis?” The players don’t respond, and Nagy reconsiders his plan to avoid raising his voice. “Now wake your asses up, and let’s go!” he shouts. “The body language in here is not good at all!” The players are roused, a few clapping as Nagy continues. “They’ve taken 11 free throws, and we’ve taken two. Nobody gets to the free throw line more than us!”

Nagy cools. “There’s no need to panic,” he says. “We’re playing this poorly, and we’re still winning. Now let’s just go out there and put it away.”

8:05 p.m. — Beginning of second half

They do. With a level of effort now befitting their talent, the Jacks dominate the second half. They open with a 19-5 run. Fiegen crashes the boards, Callahan and Brayden Carlson shut down the Thunderbirds’ guards, and Dykstra scores in the post, from the perimeter, and on drives to the lane.

The catalyst, however, is Wolters. He was solid in the first half, but he’s spectacular in the second. And although he said barely a word in the locker room, his demeanor has clearly changed. No more grinning over shooter’s rolls — Wolters now attacks the rim with venom. It starts when he sprints through the lane to crash the offensive boards, rising to the ball and nearly throwing down a tip dunk. Moments later, he drives baseline and leaps from just outside the paint against SUU’s Ray Jones, who tries to draw a charge. Jones gets called for a block, Wolters reaches the rim, and though the ball slips out of his hands, it rolls around the cylinder and in, whipping the crowd into stunned and jubilant delirium.

Within minutes, an animated GIF of the play will be making the rounds on Twitter. The Jacks now lead by 14, and there will be no comeback. SDSU wins 63-47. On the way to the locker room, Dykstra calls out, “One more, baby.” In the postgame press conference, Nagy refers to his halftime talk: “I didn’t think I really had to yell. Even though I wasn’t in there at first, I knew that whatever I wanted to say, Griffan had already said it.”

Back in the locker room, Nagy praises his team’s effort and execution. “In 22 hours,” he tells them, “we’ll be playing for a shot at the NCAA tournament.” His words are met with smiles and claps and scattered cheers. They walk back to the hotel and ride the elevator to their rooms. Once there, they lie awake in the dark, waiting for those 22 hours to pass.

Tuesday, March 6, 10:30 a.m. — Sheraton Hotel

The players sit in the hotel meeting room, bleary-eyed and lethargic, unable to do anything about the sleep they missed last night. Morning has arrived, so it’s time to watch film. Assistant coach Austin Hansen leads the session on Western Illinois with a package on their offensive sets. The Leathernecks are similar to the Thunderbirds — built to keep the pace slow, earning ugly wins by bleeding their opponents out. They are led by point guard Ceola Clark, the team’s leading scorer and the Summit League defensive player of the year.

Offensively, Clark has struggled in two losses against SDSU this season. Defensively, however, he’s been dominant. Before the tournament began, I asked Wolters which team’s defense he feared the most. His answer: Western Illinois. “Ceola Clark is really good,” he said, “and they pack everything in. They don’t allow any driving lanes.” Against the Leathernecks this season, Wolters has shot 9-for-29.

Compared to Southern Utah, Hansen says, Western Illinois is stronger defensively but weaker on the boards. Once they finish watching the package on WIU’s offense, they move on to a tape of the most recent matchup between the Jackrabbits and the Leathernecks, a 74-57 SDSU win. “They get beat on post touches and aggressive drives,” Hansen says. But because they keep their defense so compact, successful drives and passes to the post are rare.

On the screen, Wolters takes the ball on a fast break and goes one-on-one against Clark, getting to the basket with ease. “That’s a great play by the defensive player of the year,” Hansen says to a roomful of chuckles. (The SDSU coaching staff was miffed that Callahan didn’t win the award.) Hansen is in his fourth year as an SDSU assistant, but he’s been close to the program since he arrived as a player in 1999. He led the team in scoring during all four years that he played and was a three-time all-league player in the Jacks’ Division II conference.1 As a coach, he’s responsible for luring the best player the school has ever had. When Wolters was a senior in high school, Nagy stopped recruiting him after Wolters refused to sign during the early signing period. Unbeknownst to Nagy, Hansen kept in touch with Wolters, pretending to scout other players but talking to Wolters instead. Nagy didn’t talk to Wolters from October to March of that year, but by the time the spring signing period arrived, Hansen had convinced the future star to come to Brookings.

As the tape rolls, the room watches as a post player floats an outlet pass so high that it nearly sails out of bounds. “Good outlet,” Nagy says, and the players giggle. It’s an old habit, the sarcasm. It was once a staple of Nagy’s film sessions, but he’s tried to cut back ever since Garrett Callahan, Griffan’s older brother and a former Jackrabbit, told Nagy his quips were hurting his rapport with the team. “I’m sorry,” Nagy continues. “Sarcasm is never good.”

As the film session ends, the coaches close with a few points of emphasis. “We’ve got to do everything we can to keep the pace up,” Nagy says. “They’re the slowest team in the league. We have to get into their bench. They’ll show wear and tear.”

After the players are dismissed, a few coaches indulge in small talk about their team’s place in the broader college basketball landscape. They are aware that if they make the tournament, and especially if they pull an upset, they have the potential to be national darlings. ESPN’s Andy Katz has long expressed his affection for the Jackrabbits’ nickname and logo. CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander has been tweeting about his man crush on Wolters all year. Last night, the GIF of Wolters’s near-dunk found its way around the blogs.

“If he had been able to throw it down,” says assistant Brian Cooley, “that would have ended up on SportsCenter.”

4:50 p.m. — South Dakota State women vs. Missouri-Kansas City women, Summit League final

As the women’s title game winds into overtime, a few of the Jackrabbits men stand in the upper deck, eager to see their counterparts earn a fourth straight trip to the NCAAs. A vaguely familiar face approaches Tony Fiegen. “Make the Big 8 proud,” the man says, referring to the high school league that included Fiegen’s school and other territory in eastern South Dakota. Fiegen grew up 40 minutes from Brookings, going to Jackrabbits games with his dad. When he was in the fourth grade, the SDSU equipment manager asked if Fiegen would work as a ball boy — a job he accepted and approached with a deadly seriousness. One day, Fiegen told Nagy that he would grow up to play for him and the Jacks — or at least that’s how the story now goes. After Fiegen grew, his parents fished through his room and found old journals, all filled with details of his trips to watch the Jackrabbits play.

Along with Jackrabbits forward Chad White, Fiegen led his Madison High School team to a couple of South Dakota state championship games. One was played here in Sioux Falls Arena. Looking on as the women play, scanning the crowd, he thinks back on those times. “I love this place,” he says. College basketball’s holiest cathedrals may be in Lawrence and Lexington and Chapel Hill, but for Fiegen, the only dream has been to play for this team, in this gym, on this stage, with these stakes.

The Jackrabbits men stand and scream in the game’s final moments, lifting their arms to the sky as the ladies earn a 78-77 double overtime win. On the court, the women jump and hug, their joy spreading through the arena. But after five seconds of cheers, the men all file for the exits. They do not stay to see the handing out of plaques or the cutting down of nets. They do not revel in someone else’s celebration, even if that someone else comes from their school. With the women’s tournament now over, there is only one more game to be played, one more champion to be crowned. They leave the arena and head back to the hotel, barely saying a word.

6:58 p.m. — Championship game vs. Western Illinois — Pregame

The locker room is often mythologized as a place where men are at their most vulnerable. “You [take] off the uniform you [wear] to face the world and you put on the one you [wear] to face your opponent,” Chad Harbach writes in The Art of Fielding. “In between, you [are] naked in every way.” In such a state, it is natural to seek distraction.

Like, for example, a teammate’s ass.

With most of the players seated and the coaches all standing nearby, Chad White approaches the trainer’s table, dreading the pain that’s to come. He injured his knee last week during practice, so about an hour before every game, he takes a pain-killing injection. He leans on the table and yanks his shorts down. “1, 2, 3,” the doctor counts, and every eye in the room takes a look at White’s backside. “Ohhhhhhh,” White moans, as everyone laughs and returns to their seats.

Nagy opens with talk on defending screens, discussing how to limit the Leathernecks guards’ driving lanes. “They know we’re gonna make them beat us from the perimeter,” he says. “So don’t panic when they hit a couple 3s.”

After more strategic talk, he continues: “As a coach, you feel like you’re supposed to make the big pregame speech. But I don’t really make those kinds of speeches, and you guys know that. There’s no need for it. You guys know what to do. I want you to have fun. Enjoy this moment.”

The meeting dissolves and the players retreat to the dressing room. At first, there is little conversation. The only sounds are toilets flushing, shoes tapping, and spit being expelled. A backup forward walks into the shower room. Soon, a liquid stream becomes audible, though it’s obvious the shower isn’t running. “Come on!” a player yells. “There’s not even anyone in the bathroom!” The forward reemerges, smiling. “What?” he says. “We’re 2-0 when I pee in the shower. It’s not worth the risk. If I weren’t to do that and we were to lose, I’d never forgive myself.”

Most of the players leave, heading to the court for warm-ups, until only Callahan and Fiegen remain. Callahan rustles through his bag, while Fiegen keeps on his headphones. Neither says a word, but they both stay behind for a bit, the boy who dreamed of playing for this team and the senior whose career may be over in 40 minutes. In a moment, they will head outside to face the pressures and uncertainties that await them.

8:08 p.m. — Tip-off

Noise builds as the official tosses the ball, but the arena settles down when Tommie Tyler gets a steal and dunk for Western Illinois, thumping his chest and setting the tone for the night.

Wolters and Dykstra each hit a couple jumpers, but in the first few minutes, WIU dictates the pace. Just as Wolters feared, the Leathernecks pack their defense tight, forcing him to shoot. Though he delivers in the first few minutes, he quickly goes cold. Big man Marcus Heemstra comes in and produces a few hustle baskets midway through the first half, scoring four points and grabbing three offensive rebounds in three minutes of play.

White also appears to be feeling good after his painkilling shot. He hits a 3, grabs a couple boards, and blocks a shot late in the half. But the starters are struggling. Possession after possession, Wolters dribbles around the top of the key, probing the defense for gaps, and finds nothing. With about four minutes left in the half, a Carlson 3 gives SDSU a 24-23 lead. But the Jacks follow it up with a couple turnovers and three missed jumpers. For the first time this tournament, SDSU trails at the break, 28-24.

8:44 p.m. — Halftime

There is no yelling tonight. Wolters sits on the trainer’s table, gnawing on a towel draped around his neck, his eyes vacant. Carlson is next to him, staring into nothing. Fiegen, towel in hand, looks down at the floor.

Nagy steps to the front of the room. “They’re frickin’ playing tougher than you and less scared,” he says. “What are you nervous about? You have nothing to be nervous about. You’re loved!”

He paces back and forth, a scattered and halting basketball stream of consciousness flowing from his lips. “Nate, you have no driving lanes. You have to drive and dish … We’ve got our heads so far up our tails … On offense, we’ve got to calm down, be patient, and get what we want … If you’re tired, frickin’ fight through it! I guarantee you they’re more tired than you are.”

He then returns to the week’s theme. “When you’re concerned about performance, you’re like this” — he tenses up every muscle in his body — “and you can’t play like that. But when you know that the people close to you love you, that they’ll love you no matter what, then you can play with freedom. You have to play like you’re loved.”

8:59 p.m. — Second half

With 20 minutes to keep their season alive, the Jackrabbits open the second half by giving up a wide-open 3. Next, Dykstra turns it over. Then Callahan and Wolters both miss 3s. By the time the first media timeout arrives, they’re down 10. Seconds after that, the deficit becomes 12. Against a team as defensively dominant as WIU, it might as well be 30.

The second half is even uglier than the first. SDSU doesn’t make a field goal until 14:22 remain, when a Wolters jumper finally falls. The Jackrabbits, trailing by 10, are shooting only 29 percent. All year, they’ve been the best shooting team in the league, but on the night it matters most, the shots won’t fall. Then, with just under 11 minutes to go, Callahan hits a 3 to make it 38-31. The score gets no closer until five minutes later, when Callahan pump fakes and drives to the basket, making it 42-37. The Leathernecks have gone cold, their shots falling short, their drives stifled by the Jacks’ defense. Just as Nagy predicted, they look exhausted.

With five minutes to play, Dykstra passes from the post out to Carlson, who swings it to White, who nails a corner 3. 42-40. After a couple scores back and forth, WIU brings the ball up the court and the Jackrabbits make a textbook defensive stand. Every movement is shadowed, every perimeter catch closed out, every screen perfectly hedged. The shot clock runs low and the disjointed and confused Leathernecks throw the ball out of bounds. The arena rumbles with the cruelest kind of glee.

With 3:37 left, SDSU still trails, 44-42. The score doesn’t budge as the clock ticks down, with defense dominating on both sides. With 19 seconds remaining, Wolters hits Callahan on the left wing. Dykstra sets a ball screen, but Callahan goes the other way, one-on-one. When the night began, Nagy told the team to win this one for Callahan. But in the game’s waning moments, he seems intent on winning it for himself. In the lane, he goes up and draws a foul. With 15.3 seconds on the clock, he steps to the line.

Callahan’s first free throw hits the front of the rim, then the glass, then rolls around the right side of the rim and in. The second drops through in almost the exact same way. 44-44. On the last possession of regulation time, Ceola Clark goes one-on-one with Wolters and gets up an off-balance jumper. It grazes the front of the rim, short.

9:52 p.m. — Overtime

The noise builds as overtime approaches. Opposing coaches have remarked through the week that there is no neutrality here — not with 6,000-plus screaming Jackrabbits fans — and that’s never been more evident than now. Up in the stands sits Jeff Svennes, a 50-year-old crop insurance salesman who started going to Jacks games when he was 7 years old. After SDSU wins, he goes home and turns on ESPN to watch the score scroll by on the ticker. He loved the Rabbits even when they were in Division II, and he’s been giddy all week over the possibility of them taking the national stage. Not far from the court sits Ed Fiegen, Tony’s dad, who a Jackrabbits assistant calls the biggest SDSU fan in the state. Three and a half years ago, Fiegen dropped off his son at campus for freshman orientation. “It’s my dream to watch you play in the NCAA tournament,” he told him, though he’d later admit he never believed that day would come. And just behind the bench, there’s Jamie Nagy, Scott’s wife, who missed the first half to attend their son’s state playoff qualifier in Brookings. She arrived with 14 minutes left and the Jacks down nine. Now, along with Svennes and Fiegen, she is just one voice among the masses, all working toward a crescendo as overtime tips off.

Again, SDSU fails to win the tip, and WIU’s Tommie Tyler opens things up with a dunk. 46-44. After misses on each end, Fiegen ties it with a hook shot in the lane. WIU’s Terrell Parks goes straight at Fiegen on the next possession, getting a layup. 48-46. On the next trip down, SDSU works deep into the shot clock, until Carlson penetrates and kicks out to White, whose 3 bounces off the front of the rim, then the backboard, and then in. The Jackrabbits hold a 49-48 lead.

After a timeout, WIU’s Obi Emegano gets a layup to put the Leathernecks back ahead, 50-49. On the next trip down, Wolters forces a runner in the lane, and the long rebound comes loose near the top of the key. Callahan sprints in from the wing to grab the ball and keep the possession alive. After milking the shot clock for 25 seconds, Wolters hits Callahan on the left wing for a 3. The Jackrabbits lead by two with 1:30 to play. The teams trade shot clock violations, and WIU gets one more chance, down two, with 10.4 seconds remaining.

They inbound to Tyler, who leads the Leathernecks with 19 points. The others clear out, leaving him to go one-on-one with Brayden Carlson, who crouches low and stays in front of Tyler as he makes his way into the lane. Tyler throws up a wild shot with three seconds left, and it bounces off the backboard and into WIU forward Terrell Parks’s hands. Again, Carlson is there, snatching the ball away, clutching it tight as the clock winds down.

10:09 p.m. — Postgame

Freshman Zach Monaghan is the first one off the bench. He sprints to Wolters, leaping into the air and clinging tight to the team’s star. The other bench players follow, and then the redshirted guys, and then the coaches and the manager and the cheerleaders, students, and band. Before long, it seems, the whole damn arena is out there, all hugs and flailing elbows and occasional tears of joy.

It’s a scene you know well. Plaques are given, interviews conducted, and nets cut down. Wolters is named tournament MVP, and Dykstra joins him on the all-tournament team, but when the players and coaches’ names are announced, the loudest ovations are reserved for the ones who’ve been there the longest, Callahan and Nagy.

After milling around the court with joy-drunk smiles, the players return to the locker room. Monaghan picks up his phone and says, “This is the most text messages I’ve ever had in my life.” They sit scattered around the dressing room, waiting for Nagy to speak. “My hand hurts from shaking people’s hands,” he says. “I can’t put into words” — he halts, catching himself before he gets choked up, and then continues — “how happy and proud I am right now.”

“I know everyone is telling you how great you are,” he says, “but really, I wish that could just wait until the year’s over. Because I don’t just want to go to the NCAA tournament. I want to win games in the NCAA tournament.” At this, they all cheer. “Now, I don’t know who we’ll play, but I know they’ll be a very good team, maybe a 3-seed or a 4-seed. But whoever they are, I know we can beat them.

“So go out and listen to everyone tell you how great you are. Take a couple days off. But in two days, let’s get back together so I can tell you you’re not as good as you think you are.”

With that, they laugh and disperse, bounding out of the locker room and back to the hotel. A couple players hum the SportsCenter theme song. Someone mentions that “Jackrabbits” is trending on Twitter. On the highlight shows and blogs later on, there will be scant mention of teams from Tobacco Road or the Big Ten. Tonight, everyone’s talking about the Jacks. They file onto the bus and head back to Brookings, where the campus, the town, the state — all of it, at least for a while — will be theirs.

Jordan Conn wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist. On Twitter, he’s @jordanconn.

Filed Under: Events, NCAA tournament, Sports

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Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn